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David Aldridge

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The Thunder may not win this year, but more trips to The Finals are almost a foregone conclusion.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Even in Finals, these Thunder still growing into themselves


Posted Jun 18 2012 11:08PM

It was 1991.

The Lakers were playing the Bulls in The Finals. We didn't know it at the time, but it would be Magic Johnson's last appearance in the championship series. He had already won five rings and most of us thought he was lined up for number six. The Lakers had experience and they had a young, precocious center in Vlade Divac who'd taken over for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (he didn't "replace" him, as you don't "replace" someone with six rings, six MVPs and 38,387 points). And, did we mention they had Magic?

The Bulls were in their first Finals, and they had the game's biggest star in Michael Jordan. But the conventional wisdom on MJ, then entering his seventh NBA season, was summarized in the easy-to-digest phrase "he doesn't make his teammates better."

You know what else is easy to digest? Pablum.

Being wedded to conventional wisdom at the time, I bought the Lakers hook, line and sinker. How could the Bulls possibly stop L.A.? They had gone 58-24 in the regular season and just upset the reigning West champs and the team most thought was the best in the West again, Portland, in the Western Conference finals.

What could Chicago do with Magic, who still had James Worthy and Byron Scott at his side, plus the size of Divac, Sam Perkins and Elden Campbell at the ready? Yes, the Bulls had finally vanquished the Pistons, their nemesis of the past several years in the playoffs, the team that had throttled Jordan with its "Jordan Rules." But their time, if they were ever going to have a time, was in the future.

And all of that certainly went down the drain the second Scottie Pippen picked up Magic at full court and harassed him all 94 feet.

It took about a game and a half -- the Lakers actually won the Finals opener in Chicago Stadium -- to realize that, like the captain of the Titanic, everything we thought we knew and took for fact was wrong, wrong, wrong. There was some new stuff on the horizon, some next level [bleep] for which there was no answer. The Bulls, apparently, believed in the fierce urgency of Now. And they never looked back.

That vibe is in the air again now, in a place close to the geographic center of the United States, in a building whose fans are the closest thing to the old Chicago Stadium crowds that blew the roof off of Madison Street for two decades.

We do not know what will happen to the Oklahoma City Thunder in these Finals; they looked a little young and uncertain Sunday night, losing a 10-point third-quarter lead and losing Game 3 to the Heat in Miami. It may well be that these Thunder are not yet ready to claim a title. But it looked that way after Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, too, after the Spurs did a number on OKC for 96 minutes. Then, the light bulb went off, and Video the Thunder blew San Antonio's doors off four straight games.

It may be that LeBron James is a little too purposeful this year for Kevin Durant to handle, that Russell Westbrook's game, which causes so much debate, needs that little amount of refinement and polish. (Or it could be that a team that was the best free-throw shooting team in the league is coughing up at the foul line like a cat with a hairball, making just 70 percent of its free throws so far.)

Durant's current dilemma notwithstanding, he looks like the next step in basketball evolution: a 7-footer who can shoot over any defender, well past the 3-point line. Wait, you say; what about Dirk Nowitzki? It's true that Nowitzki was the first big man who had that kind of range, but he's not the latest. Durant can already finish at the rim better than Nowitzki did at a similar age, and he isn't even a good ballhandler yet.

Westbrook is a scoring point in the tradition of Gus Williams, Rod Strickland and Chauncey Billups, to name three of recent vintage. But his explosiveness at 6-foot-3 is something most point guards could never hope to duplicate.

We don't know what the Thunder will ultimately do with this group. But whatever they're going to become, it's happening now, before our eyes. For a year, the biggest issue was whether Durant and Westbrook could co-exist, if their occasional on-court dustups were just that or signs of something more sinister. That seems like a long time ago.

"As we've said throughout the season, we feel our team's continuing to evolve," general manager Sam Presti said in a quiet hallway of Chesapeake Energy Arena last week. "We feel like that's a positive thing. I think the players and our coaches deserve a lot of credit for sticking to the process of day-to-day work, focusing on the standard of play, and letting the results fall where they may. But we've never looked at our team with a stopwatch or calendar."

With its Busted Blackjack Core -- the team's four best players are 22 (Sixth Man of the Year James Harden), 22 (shotblocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka), 23 (Durant) and 23 (Russell Westbrook) -- OKC looks poised for a run that the league hasn't seen since Jordan's Bulls won six titles in eight seasons, two Threepeats apiece. Having vanquished the defending champion Mavericks as well as the Lakers and the Spurs in the postseason, OKC has put distance between itself and the West's most likely contenders.

With Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder already have two unique talents. Add Harden, the team's best ballhandler, coming off the bench, and a defensive weapon in Ibaka that seemingly blocks everything, and there is the sense that that Thunder are just scratching the surface of their potential.

"It is amazing, how 22, 23 year olds, so many of them, understand what it takes to win," said the veteran forward Nazr Mohammed, who's seen the Thunder's evolution up close as a reserve this season.

"I've been on some young teams, and you ask most NBA veterans around the league, and they say, 'Young team, nah, they ain't gonna win,' " Mohammed said. "Plus, you've got young guys who are trying to establish their name in the league. So when you're trying to establish yourself, you've got to have a little selfishness about yourself. I was young, and at that time, I was thinking about me. I'm trying to get some numbers. I'm trying to shine, so I can stay in the league, so I can get another contract. But these guys, it's all about winning. It's all about, 'Let's get this win.' It's unbelievable."

The Thunder will need that mentality from Durant, first and foremost, if they are to come back against the Heat. He has put up numbers, and in the first two games of the series, he was unstoppable in the fourth quarter. But he will have to find another, better level, which is where the elite play.

"I don't feel like a superstar, to be honest," Durant [see below] said last week, and while that statement is a 180 from what Jordan believed about himself -- deep down, in the furnace where he churned up bile and rage that fueled his incredible competitive nature. Durant has to find that cauldron.

He is not a complete player, still not the defensive force that Kobe Bryant was in his early years, or that Jordan was for most of his. He still, it is said softly in OKC, has to learn how to read screens better, and has to be less turnover prone.

OKC doesn't have a great low-post option, but with three guys that can get you 30, you don't need much offense from your bigs. The Thunder's struggles with the Lakers and Mavs were because of a lack of impact defensively, not at the other end. They'd played Jeff Green at power forward with some success, but they knew Ibaka ultimately would have to man that position. Without rim protection, they knew, they would never take the next step.

"The first moment when I get in the NBA, my intention was not really to be a shot blocker," Ibaka said. "My intention was to be good player in NBA. And when I get to the team where you have one of the three best scorers in the league and one of the guys who have ball every time, then I'd be thinking to myself, 'Man, I need to do something to get my minutes. I need to actually do something to help my team. I need to do something to make my name.' "

Ibaka knew that players like Ben Wallace had made a name -- and a living -- with their defense. He also knew about his fellow countryman, Dikembe Mutombo.

"Sometimes, I asked my agent, 'So, Mutombo just be an All-Star just for blocking shots and playing defense?,' " Ibaka said. "He said yes. That kind of stuff, when I heard that, it gave me some motivation to keep playing some defense."

Even after Ibaka started earning more minutes, the Thunder still got rolled by the Lakers in the playoffs, with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum playing ping-pong with the ball off the boards. So in came Kendrick Perkins from Boston for Green, a deal that shook Durant, who was losing one of his best friends, but for someone who solidified the Thunder's post defense.

Westbrook made his second straight All-Star team, but has dragged many critics kicking and screaming along the way. Of course, it takes coach Scott Brooks to point out, again and again, that the Thunder can't win if Westbrook doesn't score. They want him to shoot the ball.

"Ultimately, which Russell will learn -- hopefully, for us, in the next 10 days -- and what all younger guards, or any guard, learns, is the great equalizer, and the one stat that hushes everybody up more than any other, is that your team wins more than the other team wins," Derek Fisher said Saturday.

"If we're able to figure out a way to win this series, that's how he hushes up the naysayers, and the questions about whether or not he's doing what he should be doing," Fisher said. "As long as he continues to understand that, from there he should just trust his instincts and be who he is. He shouldn't try to become what people want him to be."

Even OKC's bench guys have potential. Presti swears that center Cole Aldrich has big things ahead of him, and Mohammed was just as insistent that rookie guard Reggie Jackson has star potential, which he'll show when he gets a real shot.

The only outstanding issue at the moment is Brooks' status for next season. He and the Thunder have gotten next to nowhere on a new contract, and the clock is ticking. As of July 1, he's a free agent, and there are teams like Portland that are in no hurry to hire a new coach [see below, again] and could certainly have the scratch to make him an offer he may not refuse.

Brooks' impact on the Thunder is immeasurable. He gained the trust of Durant when he was P.J. Carlesimo's assistant. Like Phil Jackson with Jordan, Brooks demands more out of Durant, coaches him, pushes him. Like Jordan with Jackson, Durant allows it because he respects Brooks. It will be impossible to duplicate that level of trust quickly, no matter who is out there.

And who would be out there that could step in quickly and keep things moving in the right direction?

Presti continues to maintain that he will address Brooks' status when The Finals are over, but The Finals may not be over until June 26, the scheduled date of Game 7. That's cutting things awfully close. And it belies the structure of the team everyone says the Thunder is emulating, the Spurs. In San Antonio, though Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford work in tandem, there's no doubt that the coach is in charge.

Come to think of it, that is what failed the Bulls at long last, with Jerry Krause coming to despite Jackson, and vice versa. That is not the case in OKC; Presti likes and respects what Brooks has done and is doing in OKC. But the longer Brooks goes without a deal, the more other agendas can take hold. If owner Clay Bennett is balking at paying Brooks the going rate for first-rate coaches, he may be the only thing that stops the Thunder from lurching toward what it seems to be, inevitably, becoming:

The Next Big Thing, some next level [bleep] for which there is no answer.

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Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade looks over the landscape in Miami, and is glad.

Last year at this time, LeBron James looked utterly defeated, uncertain of what to do and when to do it. The Mavericks took full advantage of his hesitation and throttled Miami at the key points of the key games of The Finals, with James settling for contested jumpers he had no confidence in shooting. Dallas' victory was as much a repudiation of the Heat's superstars as it was a celebration of its own stars' performances.

So Wade did what is among the hardest things for a superstar player to do: he backed off. Took his foot off the gas or whatever analogy you want to make. This season has been about James' ascension into the NBA stratosphere, but that rise only came about because Wade, the Heat's franchise player from 2003-10, made it so.

Think about this. You're "the man." You were drafted in 2003, with James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and so many other stars, and you were the one who won a title first, in 2006, when you were the emerging Alpha male, and Shaquille O"Neal -- brought in to win a title -- stepped aside so you could shine. Even though you knew this is what would likely happen when you embraced the idea of The Big Three in Miami, it would be a blow to anyone's ego to see someone else come in and assert himself.

There is no question, if there was a poll taken on South Beach, who would be voted the most popular Heat player -- Wade, who famously dates actress Gabrielle Union and who has a new book coming out about fatherhood. And Wade made the sacrifice that was necessary for James to become fully formed.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told James he had to be ready to guard every position on the floor if Miami was to win a title this season. Wade did the scut work at the other end of the court.

"People like to use the word 'defer,' " Wade said Saturday. "I don't really like to use the word 'defer.' I kind of feel like I needed him to be more assertive. With him being more assertive, that would take a little bit of my assertiveness away. But not everything. So, (it was) moreso of saying, 'OK, I understand this guy right now is arguably the best player in the world. For our team to be as successful as we need to be, we need him to be the best player in the world.'"

The Finals last year exposed the schism between the Heat's best two players.

"It was just easing his mind a little bit," Wade said of James. "I felt that, last year, it was an uncomfortableness. 'Should I go? I don't want to step on any toes.' And I didn't want that. I wanted us to be as good as we can. We'll figure it out. I've been a guy before that played with another superstar, a guy in his prime, and I kind of know how it looked, a little bit, and how it worked for us. And I tried to bring that dynamic to it, and tried to let 'Bron know, 'Listen, you go and be the best player. Everything else will work itself out. I'll find my way.'"

It was not easy. Wade averaged 30 a game in 2009. Of course, the Heat lost in the first round of the playoffs that season to Atlanta. But players who say they'll gladly sacrifice numbers for winning are ... what's the word? Lying. At least much of the time.

"No matter what anyone says from the outside, no one would understand how hard it is for me to do it -- especially here in Miami," Wade said. "I've seen it done before at the highest level. I've been to the mountaintop, in a sense. At the same time, I had to sit down and make a decision about my career, in 2010. I made a decision that I wanted to play with these guys. I wanted to play with LeBron. I wanted to play with Chris [Bosh]. And I knew with that happening, things were going to change. I accepted it then, so I have to accept it now."

James thinks the deferring only should go so far.

"A lot of times I try to let him figure it out on his own, but sometimes I go to him and tell him I need one of those games from him, I need one of those performances from him because he still has it," James said last week. "He knows he still has it, too, but every player needs a little kick every now and then, no matter how time-tested they are. Yeah, I try to continue to let him know how important he is to this team, which he should know, but he also needs to be D-Wade and not worry about deferring as much."

Only a championship will make the change in roles worth it. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce each gave up shots in Boston, but the Celtics had to vanquish the Lakers to solidify those players' standings for a franchise that is used to putting banners up in the rafters.

Miami has one. And, Video as James put it so famously, he wasn't brought to South Beach to get just one.

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(last week's rankings in parenthesis)

1) Miami (2) [2-1]: Erik Spoelstra, like Pat Riley, is fond of words like "skirmishes." The Heat have won the majority of said skirmishes with the Thunder so far in the Finals, just as they won all the important moments against the Celtics and Pacers.

2) Oklahoma City (1) [1-2]: As Derek Fisher pointed out Sunday night, the Thunder were in a similar position against the Spurs after two games. But the Spurs aren't the defensive force the Heat has become.

3) San Antonio (3): Season complete.

4) Boston (4): Season complete.

5) Indiana (5): Season complete.

6) L.A. Lakers (6): Season complete.

7) Philadelphia (7): Season complete.

8) L.A. Clippers (8): Season complete.

9) Memphis (9): Season complete.

10) Atlanta (10): Season complete.

11) Denver (11): Season complete.

12) New York (12): Season complete.

13) Orlando (13): Season complete.

14) Chicago (14): Season complete..

15) Dallas (15): Season complete.

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New York Yankees (6-0): Any team that sweeps my beloved Nationals in D.C. has my grudging respect. What a lineup they bring to the ballpark every day, one that still works pitchers deep into counts and gets their pitch counts up better than anyone in the game. They're still the Damn Yankees after all these years.

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Officials Dan Crawford, Tom Washington and Tony Brothers, who all somehow missed Video LeBron James' clear foul on Kevin Durant in the waning seconds of Game 2 of the Finals. It took former ref Steve Javie, hired by the Worldwide Leader during the playoffs, to point out that one of the refs was out of position on the critical play and couldn't see the contact inside.

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1) LeBron James (Finals averages): 30.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4 apg, .464 FG, .862 FT: His will, and his fingerprints, have been all over the Finals so far. He has already made more free throws in the first three games of this year's series than he attempted in six games of last year's Finals.

2) Kevin Durant (Finals averages): 31 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, .574 FG, .737 FT: Great on offense, but has gotten into foul trouble the last two games with poor decisions at the defensive end. Has to stay on the court almost all the time for OKC to have a shot.

3) Tony Parker (playoff averages): 20.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.8 apg, .453 FG, .807 FT: Season Complete.

4) Rajon Rondo (playoff averages): 17.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 11.9 apg, .468 FG, .696 FT: Season Complete.

5) Kevin Garnett (playoff averages): 19.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg, .497 FG, .813 FT: Season Complete.

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What is it about the Dream Team that still produces such sharp, pointed emotions?

This came up upon viewing "The Dream Team" documentary that aired on NBA TV last week. (There was an advance screening of it last week in Oklahoma City.) First, to the film: It is amazing work by NBA Entertainment, which had tens of thousands of feet of film that it had shot in 1992, when the U.S. men's Olympic team came together in practices, exhibition games, the qualifying Tournament of the Americas in Portland and, finally, the Olympic Games in Barcelona.

There is never-before-seen footage (I believe) of the U.S. Select Team's defeat of the Dreamers in a practice during the team's workouts in La Jolla, Calif., before leaving for the Games. (Bobby Hurley, now gray-haired, is especially funny recalling his own amazement at how he and Chris Webber dominated the day.) There is Larry Bird, saying that when he saw Webber dunk, he knew it was time to get out of the league, and fast.

There is John Stockton, anonymous as he walks down the Ramblas in Barcelona with his family, asking passersby if they've met any of the U.S. players -- and filming their blank stares as they obviously have no idea that he's one of them.

And there is Isiah Thomas.

Actually, there isn't Thomas, because he declined to take part in the film. But Thomas's story, the story of why he wasn't included on the team when he obviously had earned it as both an NCAA champion with Indiana and a two-time NBA champion as the leader of the Pistons, dominates the most important parts of the 75-minute film.

Predictably, the wounds are still raw in Detroit, where the Detroit News found former GM Jack McCloskey still seething about Thomas' omission. (For his part, Thomas issued a very gracious statement last week congratulating the Dreamers on their accomplishments two decades ago.)

I don't think we'll ever get the true, true story of why Thomas wasn't voted onto the team by the selection committee that picked the players. My recollection is that no one on the committee -- including the late Chuck Daly, the Dream Team coach -- made a forceful argument to include Thomas, but I wasn't in the room.

At any rate, the doc makes it clear that Michael Jordan wasn't the only person who didn't want Thomas. Then-deputy commissioner Russ Granik says the Pistons' walkoff in the waning seconds of their 1991 Eastern Conference finals loss to the Bulls was fresh in people's minds. And Scottie Pippen makes it clear he had nothing but contempt for Thomas and the Pistons. (Jack McCallum, the veteran Sports Illustrated writer who covered the NBA brilliantly for close to two decades, breaks it down further in his book about the Dream Team, scheduled for a July 3 release.)

That was a central part of the documentary, but not the only one. Equally compelling is the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, with each using the Olympic team as a proxy for their personal battle to see who was the top dog in the league. Jordan was on the launch pad, his hunger for titles coming full circle, and Johnson, having announced his retirement the year before after disclosing he was HIV-positive, was desperately looking for a foothold for his waning star. Incredibly, they both succeeded.

Having covered that team, I was surprised by how seeing them on the big screen brought back so many memories and so much emotion. Watching the U.S. team go on a 46-1 run in the opening round against Angola (in the game where Charles Barkley elbowed the Angolan player Herlander Coimbra) was to witness basketball played at its highest possible level. The Dreamers, I've said often, weren't playing their opponents; they were playing the game of basketball itself.

There are omissions in the documentary. There is nothing, for example, about the uproar produced when the team stayed in a downtown hotel instead of in the Olympic Village with the other athletes. Several prominent people in the amateur athletics movement, including the late LeRoy Walker, the first African-American chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was sharply critical of the idea of letting the pros compete.

There was Jordan's unwillingness to wear the Reebok-made warmups on the gold medal stand. In a weak sauce "compromise," the Nike-branded Jordan draped an American flag over the offending Reebok logo.

"People forget now the Dream Team of blessed memory -- oh, boy, living through it, it wasn't so blessed," NBA Commissioner David Stern said last week. "But it was great. We changed the face of basketball. It was like combining the greatest philharmonic with the greatest ballet with the Beatles. It was just wonderful. And it will never be duplicated. To me, that's the Dream Team. This is not the 'Dream Team Era.' That was the Dream Team, in 1992."

There was a poignancy to seeing Daly, known as "Daddy Rich" among the Pistons because of his impeccable, Italian-made suits, primping his hair. Daly was a child of the Depression, who loved money but valued it, and who came back from being fired as a head coach in Cleveland -- his friends jokingly referred to him as "the 90-day wonder" -- to being just about the only guy everyone in basketball trusted to coach a team with the talent and egos of that one.

Mostly, "The Dream Team" recalls an era that is long gone. International teams have figured out how to compete against the NBA's pros, and until USA Basketball put Jerry Colangelo in charge a few years ago, they were beating NBA pros with regularity. International players now are as important to the NBA's success as they are with their home country's teams. And, now, there is growing sentiment to remove most of the pros from Olympic competition, with a 23-year-old age limit being discussed that would be similar to that used in Olympic soccer competition.

It is no longer enough for our best to just show up, and we no longer are revered to the point where opponents want to take pictures of U.S. superstars. The game is truly global, which was the point of the Dream Team coming together -- that, and making a few billion in new markets around the world. There are pros and cons with both of those developments, caused by 12 men who comprised the best basketball team I ever saw.

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He thinks it best if we all move on, nothing to see here. From John Vanek:

I am not writing to sling mud or be hateful towards you or your column. I generally enjoy reading and find it both insightful as well as entertaining. In fact most of the time I agree with you and your articles. Unfortunately, today I cannot.

While I can understand why the Seattle fans miss having a team, it is not Oklahoma City's fault. Not the fans, not the players, not the management. As stated in your article, even after a renovation, the arena never met expectations. Basically it is people not filling seats, buying hot dogs and shopping the team swag. It is not crazy conspiracies to 'steal' a team, it is simply the team was not supported by the community. There were some who are very vocal, but there weren't 18,000 every night. There were some who wanted the team there and the rest of the city just said 'meh'.

I don't want this to be a finger-pointing and name-calling e-mail. OKC versus Seattle does nothing but foster hate and discontent. Actually I would ask you is this really news? Is it really something that is important to the fans, players and league? Does giving voice to openly hostile individuals make for good journalism? In my opinion, no. Now if they were rallying for a new or moved franchise back to Seattle that would be great. I'd even support that myself. If they were wanting support from basketball fans to show that the sports world wants a new arena there, fine. But that is not what it is. It is purely using the media to whine about their team moving.

Charlotte moved to New Orleans, we don't hear about that. Vancouver lost their team to Memphis, nothing there. Clippers moved from San Diego to L.A. and that doesn't seem to be an issue. I don't hear an outcry from Minnesota regarding 'their' Lakers that were stolen by Los Angeles. Why? Because they weren't stolen. Teams moved and that is it. Mostly due to lack of support from the city or the fans. Sure, there are some sold out fans who would always be there, but that is the small minority. Sad to say, most 'fans' are only fans when you win. While it's unfortunate, it is reality and certainly is not a tragedy.

If some few in Seattle cannot come to terms with the business being sold and moved, I'm sorry. It's time to get over it and move on. If you can't, again, I'm sorry, but please do not continue to give voice to those who really don't have OKC or Clay Bennett to blame. I shudder to think that I have to outlive them to finally get to where we don't have to hear about it. It is not news and it does not belong here.

We will have to agree to disagree, John. I don't think the people quoted in the story were saying anything about Oklahoma City or its fans; as a matter of fact, they went out of their way to say they had nothing against the Thunder's fans -- or, really, against Clay Bennett. Their point -- which you are also free to disagree with -- is that the Sonics were supported for four decades, and Seattle only stopped supporting the team when it was clear Bennett had no intention of staying in town. (As for no one caring about the Lakers or Clippers moving to Los Angeles, I would point out that those events occurred 52 and 29 years ago, respectively, and that no one talks about Charlotte losing the Hornets in 2002 because they got the Bobcats two years later.)

I will acknowledge I have a soft spot for Seattle and its fans. They should not be forgotten. That was the point of the story.

Double Your Mulligan. From Arthur Massey:

If you can somehow use all your power to convince the basketball Gods that all NBA teams should have ONE amnesty clause EACH YEAR.

I think that would help keep the NBA more balanced as far as competition goes, teams won't be stuck with (expletive) players and can have cap flexibility.

No fan likes to see their team playing for 3 years down the road ...

Won't happen, Arthur. A yearly amnesty clause would allow the wealthier teams to simply write off players who underperform and just keep adding new people every year. That wouldn't be available to cash-strapped teams who couldn't afford to pay ex-players and be able to sign new ones. Also, the league wouldn't want to reward teams who mismanage their rosters so badly that they need do-overs every season.

The proof is in the video. From James Moutsias:

I enjoyed your article yesterday, as always, but I have a problem with what you say is lack of proof for the 2002 Western Conference Finals being fixed. Sure, referees make mistakes every game, they're human, but have you seen this game? No matter how bad a team plays defense, they will never send a team to the free throw line 27 times in one quarter. Especially not a team playing for a championship. I don't expect this to be published, as you can't have a story about the same thing twice in a row, but I want you to consider it at least. Watch "the greatest tragedy in sports" on YouTube.com, then tell me what you think.

One final thing: even if you agree with most of the calls in that Game 6, you can't honestly say that Mike Bibby wasn't elbowed in the face in clear view. Something was wrong.

Yes, I have seen the game, James. I was at the game. I covered the game. I have consistently said I have no explanation for what happened in the fourth (including the Bibby foul), and I understand why some people believe there was a fix in place. But I also have no concrete evidence of it. And neither does anyone else, at least so far. I will never censor fans who want to express their opinions, but I agree with you that we have exhausted this subject.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and public support for this young lady's project to improve school lunches in the UK to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your response is sufficiently thoughtful, funny, interesting or snarky, we just might publish it!

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$9,500,000 -- Amount that Brooklyn forward Gerald Wallace will be giving up next year after deciding to opt out of the final year of his contract, becoming an unrestricted free agent. The Nets are still hopeful they can sign Wallace, whom they acquired from the Blazers at the trade deadline for what turned out to be the No. 6 pick in the 2012 Draft, to a long-term deal.

$6,390,000 -- Amount that 76ers guard Lou Williams, the team's leading scorer, will be giving up next year after opting out of the last year of his deal. He, too, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1.

$7,800,000 -- Amount that Magic guard Jameer Nelson may or may not give up, depending on whether he opts out of the final year of his deal. Nelson was supposed to decide at the end of last week, but Orlando agreed to extend the deadline he had to make a decision because the team has yet to hire a new general manager or coach.

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1) Considering they were within a day or two of losing the whole season, the league and union's 11th-hour deal to salvage 66 games looks to have been worth it, if it produces a Finals as compelling as Miami-OKC already has been.

2) The Blazers are going to take their time looking for a new coach, and it's the right thing to do. The new GM, Neil Olshey, has been on the job for, what, 10 minutes? Why try to shoehorn a new coach in before the Draft, when it's going to take months for Olshey to begin re-shaping the roster? And who is going to come off of the coaching board before Olshey's ready to hire? All of the assistants of note, from the Warriors' Mike Malone to the Pacers' Brian Shaw, will still be there when Olshey is ready to talk turkey in a few weeks. (Shaw is up for the Charlotte job, but I suspect even if the Bobcats offer him the gig, they won't be prepared to give him the money he'd require to take all those Ls in the next couple of years.)

3) Quin Snyder has more than a good chance of getting the Charlotte Bobcats' coaching job. If he winds up being hired, it will complete a meteoric run up the ranks in the pros. Two years ago, Snyder was one of Doug Collins' first hires in Philly, and he's quickly established that the bright future he seemed to have in college -- which was derailed by an out-of-control couple years with him at the helm at Missouri -- may be back on track

4) Met Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in Chicago at the pre-Draft camp a couple of weeks ago, and I had no idea he had such an anxiety about interviews and public speaking, where he can barely get but a few words out at a time. At Kentucky, he was -- correctly -- shielded from doing many interviews, but he will have to be a public face of whatever team drafts him. To his credit, he soldiered through a few in Chicago. It was painful to talk to him under those circumstances -- when the cameras are off, he seems just fine -- but I give him a world of credit for trying.

5) If Kiki Vandeweghe is indeed the leader in the clubhouse for the Clippers' GM job, having done the team's TV broadcasts last season, it's a good ending for a truly good guy, who started the rebuild in Denver around Carmelo Anthony and had to close down the Jason Kidd era in Jersey. He deserves to supervise a team that's got a chance to do something in the next few years.

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1) Um, Coach Pop? Hi, yeah, Tony here. Yeah, you're not gonna believe this, but...

2) My friend Zirin has brought it strong again ... and I just disagree with him. Of course, you can root against the Thunder if you disagree with the politics and business practices of their owners. But what if you disagree with the politics and business practices of, say, a liberal owner like the late Abe Pollin in Washington? Should you root against the Wizards? Or what if the coach is a conservative; Mike Shanahan was a strong supporter of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. Should liberal Broncos fans in Denver have rooted against them back when he was coach? Should liberal Redskins fans in D.C. turn their backs on the team now because of what Shanahan believes off the field? Zirin's overall point, which is a thoughtful one, is that we need to take off the rose-colored glasses and see what's really going on in sports. But to the specifics of his argument against the Thunder, I disagree.

3) The Commish can do better than he did last week with Jim Rome.

4) Good luck and Godspeed to Greg Willard, the veteran referee who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and will miss the rest of the playoffs.

5) Another lockout-related problem: because The Finals started about a week later than they normally would, they bounced up against the U.S. Open -- which was played in San Francisco. With the leaders on the Open scoreboard not teeing off until 6 Eastern, the resolution of the golf tournament ran head up against the end of Game 3 Sunday night. No matter your preference, it forced the sports fan into making a tough decision.

6) Rodney King's life was a troubled one, and I can't say I expected him to live a long, healthy life. It is nonetheless sad that he was only 47 when he died over the weekend. I hope he is at peace.

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THUNDER ALL-STAR KEVIN DURANT

Five years ago, there was no debate, no matter how much the revisionists want to make it so now -- thirty out of 30 NBA teams would have taken Ohio State freshman center Greg Oden over Texas freshman forward Kevin Durant. That wasn't a slight toward Durant; it was an acknowledgment of Oden's incredible potential.

Today, of course, the whole world has changed. Oden is out of the league, while the wondrous 23-year-old Durant has become the NBA's best scorer and the leader of an Oklahoma City Thunder team that's made the Finals four years after moving from Seattle. And like the team that had to remake itself in a new city, Durant has reshaped the idea of what an NBA superstar looks like, from his simple declaration via Twitter that he would re-sign with the Thunder to his public visits throughout the summer and during the lockout to play in the urban summer leagues that many people had forgotten. In the meantime, he led the U.S. team to a World Championship in Turkey in 2010 and will be a core member of future Olympic teams. That he does all this without a hint of macho braggadocio or look-at-me chest thumping makes him almost too good to be true.

Me: So many things happen to us over the course of our lives that push us in one direction or another. How do you think you wound up here?

Kevin Durant: Well, you know, once I meet my Lord and Savior, that's one of the questions I'm going to ask. It's such a blessing to have so many people come in and out of my life, for various reasons, to help me to get to where I'm at. It's not just me. It's all the people who sacrificed their time and helped me out, and worked with me every single day. But I'm not where I want to be. I have a lot of growing to do. There's another level I want to get to, but I like where I'm at right now. I like the road I'm headed to. I've got to continue to just keep believing, and keep faith.

Me: Where do you think your game can evolve to?

KD: Well, eventually, just being a completely all-around player, a guy who can get triple doubles. I haven't got one yet in five years, but I know my time is coming to get one of those. I want to be a guy that can consistently do it almost every night. And I think doing that is the mental part of the game, watching film, see where I can help my teammates, how I can score easier, where I can rebound at. I've got to continue to just keep watching and keep learning every day.

Me: With the pressure of being in The Finals, attention to detail can be lost. How has this team continued to pay attention to detail?

KD: Well, we know that the small details win basketball games. That goes down to setting your man up on a screen, screening hard, diving on the floor for a loose basketball, hedging on the screen, being able to take a charge. It's the small things like that is the difference between winning and losing. You see all the good teams doing that. You see the Spurs do it. You see the Lakers do it. You see the Miami Heat do it. Teams like that, they do those things. That's why they become successful. Since day one, that's what we've been preaching. Scotty [Brooks] has been great at letting us know that the small details win basketball games. We're getting it. We're not where we want to be, but we're getting there.

Me: When you'd watch those teams the last couple of years, did you envision your team getting there?

KD: I knew we had a chance. I knew we had a chance to do it if we continued to grow individually first, and come together as a group, collectively, to do it. I pointed at myself. I looked in the mirror and just told myself if I grew as individual player, then that means my team was going to do better. So I just tried to kick it into full drive this summer and work as hard as I can every day, and just play every day. Once you just play the game, you start to pick up habits. You start to see things a little differently. That's what I did.

Me: During the lockout, people were saying not to play, because of the risk of injury, and yet you played everywhere, almost every day. Do you find it ironic that you're the one who winds up playing in June?

KD: Yeah. I never really looked at it like, 'I can't play; I can't risk injury.' I always felt God had my back, and whatever happens is going to happen. If I get hurt playing the game of basketball, so be it. It's something that I love to do. I was hoping I wasn't going to get hurt, but it was all about wanting to play, wanting to show people what I could do. And still, I had that opportunity to do that playing at the Rucker Park, playing back home in D.C., playing in Memphis, different areas where people really hadn't seen me play up close. I just wanted to make a point and prove a point. I think it was fun.

Me: You seemed to like those games more than the NBA games...

KD: I told somebody earlier, I just like running up and down the court. I like the concept of team. I like passing to my teammates and I like seeing my teammates do well. I like to see my teammates cheering me on. It's been like that ever since I was young. It was just the concept of group that made me have fun every time I stepped on the floor.

Me: Who instilled that in you?

KD: My mom always taught me that. Having a brother, you know you got to sacrifice sometimes. Sometimes, I had to clean up and he gets to chill, stuff like that. We were a team. Me and my brother, we were a team in the house. We had to do the chores and make sure the house was clean. We had to help my mom out. So we had to do things together. Ever since I was young, we leaned on each other. And once you're playing with four other guys, that's what you have to do to reach your common goal, which is the W. Ever since I was eight, when I started playing on my first team, I always enjoyed that for some reason. And I think that goes back to my brother teaching me, and my mom teaching me, and my grandmother teaching me. And it's a great lesson I learned.

Me: Do you feel like a different kind of superstar?

KD: I don't feel like a superstar, to be honest. You say 'superstar,' you gotta look at guys like the Kobe Bryants and the LeBrons and the DWades, where they can't go to the mall. They can't even go to the McDonalds. They just get swarmed. Carmelo Anthony, I've seen that up close, where people just love those guys. As opposed to me, I can just be regular. I can walk out, walk down the street, go to the mall, go to the gas station, and people don't even recognize me. I like it like that. I always wanted to consider myself as a good basketball player, and I'm not there yet.

Me: But you can be anonymous in Oklahoma City. In New York, you couldn't do that.

KD: I think it's the other way around. I think now, that we've made it to the Finals and we've gotten better over the years, I go up to the mall and three or four people recognize me. Five or six see me at the McDonalds. But if I was in New York, I'd just be another person. There's so many stars there in New York and L.A., I could walk around and just be me. But I like it here. I love the people here. They're great to play for. Great people to be around.

Me: Can you just walk me through the day in 2010 when you decided you were going to stay in OKC?

KD: Well, it was just natural. It wasn't a thought. I didn't think I was going to leave at all. It was always about staying here. Ever since I first got here and met [general manager] Sam Presti, and at that time our coach, P.J. Carlesimo, and you started to get the assistants in, and Scotty Brooks was the first assistant, and Mark Bryant, and it goes down the line. I just liked being here. The sacrifice that they made in trading Ray Allen, and not signing Rashard [Lewis] back, they kind of handed me the keys to the car. It took me some time to believe in myself. Everybody else outside of me believed in me. But it took me some time to really get confident. And as the years went along, they just kind of groomed me into being one of the main guys on the team. And ever since then, it was just like, 'All right, I want to be here.'

Me: What were the workouts like with LeBron last summer?

KD: They were good. I got better. And that was just the main part. That was what I wanted to do, to get better. Great workouts. He worked hard, I worked hard, and we got it in.

Me: How did that come about? Was it a Nike thing, or did LeBron call you?

KD: Yeah, he seen me playing all those games, and he just said, 'Hey, man, let's get together and work out.' Some weeks went past, a month or so, and I just hit him and said, 'You still want to work out?' I was looking for some new guys to work out with. I just said, 'Hey, let's go out there.' So a few of my guys went with me, and we had a real good time.

Me: Did you learn anything from him?

KD: I always just try to see how guys approach the game, how hard they work. And he's one of the guys that work hard and really is passionate about the game, and that's the same way I am. I really like players like that, no matter if you're in high school, college or the NBA, I just like players that work hard and respect the game, and he's one of those guys.

Me: What is it going to be like playing against him for a championship?

KD: It's going to be fun. It's going to be the Thunder versus the Heat. We'll see who wins.

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yes I'm preparing for a comeback. I'm training daily
Former Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy, Tweeting through his friend Will Conroy's account (@chillconroy), Friday, 11:59 p.m., confirming that he plans to return to the NBA next season after announcing his retirement last year because of recurring knee problems. Roy has reportedly gotten the similar platelet replacement procedure in his knee that Kobe Bryant and other athletes have had in recent years. Roy is an unrestricted free agent after being amnestied by Portland; the Blazers can't re-sign him until the 2014 season at the earliest, but Roy is planning to sign elsewhere for next season.

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"They don't fit together well. Amar'e Stoudemire doesn't fit well with Carmelo. Stoudemire's a really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can't stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together."
-- Phil Jackson, in an upcoming interview on HBO's "Real Sports" with the great Andrea Kremer, on what he called a "clumsy" Knicks team. Jackson said he was never formally asked to coach the team and wouldn't have accepted the job if asked.

"The mayor stressed that the Bulls brand is important to the city, nationally and internationally, and that the Bulls represent the spirit and competitive grit of Chicago. He thought centralizing our team assets inside the city limits would be a show of our ongoing commitment to Chicago."
-- Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, announcing in a statement that the team would be moving its practice facility from suburban Deerfield into the city, in the West Side neighborhood near where the United Center is built. That area had been economically depressed for decades before recent gentrification spurred by the construction of Oprah Winfrey's television studio there helped bring businesses back to the community. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been an advocate of the move.

"I'm not sitting here going out having a celebration tonight. When the contract is approved and they put up a big slug of money, then it will be done."
-- Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, on his legacy in Memphis after announcing he was selling the team to California entrepreneur Robert Pera for a reported $350 million.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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