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By Sam Smith | 3.23.2015 | 9:22 a.m. CT
The big story in the NBA last week was the seemingly obvious news that Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant will be out for the rest of the season with foot problems. The Thunder came as close to saying so as possible, but it really seems certain because of Tim Duncan. Because the future of the Thunder franchise hinges in large part on the ability to retain Durant when he can become a free agent after next season. The Thunder have the edge to make the playoffs this season with New Orleans fading and Russell Westbrook still starring. Though the Thunder has a big game coming up Sunday with the ninth place Suns. But the Thunder isn’t going any farther against the Golden State Warriors without Durant if they do get in. Still, that’s minor now.
It’s not dissimilar to the scenario that played out for the San Antonio Spurs in 2000 when they were defending NBA champions. Duncan suffered a meniscus tear about two weeks before the end of the regular season. Given it’s a four to six week recovery period, Duncan was determined to play in the playoffs considering the Spurs were defending champions. Duncan put off surgery so he could play and was working out actively within days of the injury.
Fortunately, Duncan had Gregg Popovich as coach and effectively general manager. Though Duncan didn’t think so at the time. He wanted to play, wanted to be there with David Robinson as the team was going for the repeat. But Popovich said no. He told Duncan his future was too important and he wasn’t going to play. And consider this risk for the Spurs: Duncan was a free agent. And he wanted to play. And he was mad. And Duncan was seriously considering an amazing plan to join Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in Orlando.
Eventually, Robinson flew back from vacation in Hawaii to help persuade Duncan to stay. But Spurs’ officials have long believed Popovich’s concern for Duncan’s long term health and well being was instrumental in Duncan deciding to remain with the Spurs. And we knew what that has meant. Just joining the Spurs staff at the time was an Emerson College basketball player and pre-law student named Sam Presti, who now happens to be Thunder general manager. And who practices well the Spurs ways.
Perhaps Durant will appreciate the Thunder organization has his best interests at heart. But what if he had other ideas?
It’s kind of a different Durant in the last year or so, and some around the NBA suggest it coincides with his agent switch to the Jay-Z agency. Durant has taken a harder edge with media, began to draw many more technical fouls for engagements with officials and has been caught on camera many times seemingly trash talking to himself about his own excellence. Perhaps it’s not the Dennis Rodman Madonna-inspired make over as Durant hasn’t been changing hair colors. But perhaps Durant wants a bigger audience no matter what the Thunder do.
If that’s the case, as ESPN analyst Tom Penn postulated a few weeks back, the Thunder might have to trade Durant. As difficult as that would be, it would be even tougher for the Thunder given the traded James Harden, who might win league MVP this season. Presti dismissed the speculation as ridiculous. Trading back to back MVPs? Even if you thought about it how could you get value? Or live with it.
But you never say never in the NBA. We know there has been an uneasiness around the Clippers for some time. Most say it stems from an awkward situation between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Nothing fatal. But what if the Clippers lose in the first round of the playoffs? Which is certainly possible in the wild west. Or second round? There’s a $2 billion investment there from a guy who seems impatient. Griffin is an Oklahoma City native who went to the University of Oklahoma. He’s a star. After all, if you are going to lose Durant maybe it’s different if you can add a star. Maybe the Clippers throw in a Crawford or a Hawes. Durant might also like to play with a point guard who actually passes. And Russell Westbrook, a free agent in 2017, might realize he outlasted everyone and maybe it does make sense to stay in Oklahoma City. Perhaps the bigger news is yet to come.
NBA news and notes
And then there’s the future MVP, Anthony Davis. No great young player—no Kevin Love he—basically has been unable to make the playoffs his first three years in the NBA, which seems the fate for Davis. But as much as the Thunder’s future may hinge on Durant, it’s perhaps more so for the Pelicans and Davis. The Pelicans have no No. 2. Davis, who almost had a quadruple double last week, and is becoming one of the most amazing unfulfilled talents in the history of the game. He’s up for a contract extension after this season, but with the new TV contract money coming in after next season there’s likely no chance he takes an extension. Then he’s a restricted free agent, and obviously the Pelicans would match any offer. And Davis is saying all the right things, last week telling the New Orleans Times Picayune in winning a community assist award, "I feel like this is my safe haven, New Orleans. They have been nothing but nice to me. They have treated me with the upmost respect. The people of the city, no matter what I do, they are there to support me and the Pelicans. They are fond of the team and me. I feel like it's my job to give back." So maybe he’s happy and comfortable and will take the money after next season. Frankly, given as many injuries as he has—seemingly another teenager whose body was not ready for the NBA—it makes sense to take the money from the Pelicans before the risk of injury playing a fifth year without a long term deal. Worry about being a free agent once your bank account is assured. But the Pelicans aren’t going to be able to be overconfident. One of the things you hear around the NBA is they may try to bring in someone like Louisiana native and Hall of Famer Joe Dumars to have a major role in the organization and help persuade Davis.
Bulls and Rockets a 'dream' series
It’s a view of many that the Bulls could have won eight straight titles if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired in 1993. Not Vernon Maxwell, and it would have been interesting to watch. The Rockets had a 20th anniversary title celebration last week, titles some said had asterisks because Jordan wasn’t playing. But in that era, no team played the Bulls tougher. The Rockets swept the Bulls in the Bulls’ 1991 and 1993 title seasons (Jordan played in all the games) and split with them in 1991-92. In Jordan’s nine seasons through 1992-93, the Bulls were 1-8 in Houston and 6-12 overall against the Rockets, Jordan’s poorest record against any NBA opponent. One reason was the erratic Maxwell, who played Jordan like no one else, often screaming in his face and challenging him to fights. At last week’s reunion, Maxwell told the Houston Chronicle he longed for a playoff with the Bulls: “I wanted to fight him. Michael Jordan saying we wouldn’t have won the championships the time he was out and tried to play baseball. I say just Google the times we played them. They couldn’t beat us. Like we couldn’t beat Seattle. If we could’ve beat Seattle, we’d have got a championship against Chicago because they couldn’t match up against us. I wish I could have got in a seven-game series. That would have been a dream to me. I loved playing against Michael. People back in my era didn’t want to play against Mike. He used to talk to me all the time during games. ‘Max, this is what the media wants to see. Let’s not do this. You don’t have to do this. Why you doing this?’ I know I got under his skin.”
One of the best of his era, hangs 'em up
He was no Isiah Thomas, who was a ball dominant point guard. Nor Jerry West or Nate Archibald. There have been many great point guards who carried teams. So Steve Nash, who officially retired last week though he’s basically been unable to play the last two years, didn’t exactly revolutionize the point guard position, as it has been suggested in the many recent tributes. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame the first time he’s eligible in five years; there shouldn’t be any dispute about that. His story was one of those classics in sport, little guy from Canada with no scholarship interest and slow to catch on in the NBA finally begins to develop in Dallas. But then going to his third team in nine seasons (not exactly your untouchable) and united with Mike D’Antoni and an offense which basically has changed the NBA, Nash became a two time MVP for the most entertaining offense in the game. He’ll be noted for a lack of a title, which he probably should have had if not for David Stern’s worst decision ever in effectively rewarding Robert Horry for assaulting Nash when teammates Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench to go to Nash’s aid out of bounds. They were suspended and the Spurs came back to win the series and the NBA title. Perhaps Nash’s greatest achievement was getting more multimillion contracts for teammates than anyone in NBA history with his unselfish, speed game. Among those were Tim Thomas, Shawn Marion, Quentin Richardson, Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and Channing Frye. All those points and open scoring opportunities made them seem like productive players. Not unlike the Bulls players from the 90s who won titles with Michael Jordan and went to disappointment elsewhere. Nash was a special player, who was a hero to many of today’s top point guards. Steve Kerr called it the “snake dribble,” Nash’s famous drive into the paint and out again, always head up and searching out shooters and last resort taking the shot even though he probably was the team’s best shooter. He was chided as the worst defensive MVP ever, though it’s not like Barkley, Iverson or Magic were lock down types. Sports is filled with stories of the overlooked who make you take a second and third look and admit your mistake. Nash was one of those and one of the best of his era. It was a joy to watch him play basketball.
Tight playoff race in the East
It’s now a six-way race in the Eastern Conference for being the reason why the NBA is under pressure to change the playoff format. The Bucks remain in free fall and face playoff rivals Miami and Indiana this week. Really, how are the national networks not picking up this drama? The feeling in Boston is they’ve been able to work their way back in because they moved Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, two stars who really aren’t, thus allowing coach Brad Stevens to connect with a motivated group. Boston’s run is at least making Josh Smith feel good.
It’s either going to drive him out of there or help make him a better playoff player, but LeBron James has been seen more frequently pointing out Kevin Love’s defensive mistakes to him during games. With Love about to go to the playoffs for the first time, there’s little he can say.
Here come the Spurs, now two games out of third in the Western Conference after blowing out the Hawks in Atlanta Sunday. The Spurs have won 10 of 12.
The Hawks are experiencing their vulnerability time. They are 6-5 in March, but in winning four of their last nine the wins have come against all losing teams while the Hawks have been blown out by the Spurs and Warriors. It’s the issue doubters have raised all season, which applies to the playoffs: When things get tough who carries you through the rough patches? Can you be San Antonio East without Tony Parker or Duncan? Who’s that for you? Al Horford? Jeff Teague?
LeBron James/Dwyane Wade playoff reunion?
If that really is Dwyane Wade, averaging 25.4 in 10 games in March even with Sunday’s 12 points in the loss to Oklahoma City, you’re rooting for them to get to seventh and face the Cavs, who likely are going to get the No. 2 spot in the East the way the Bulls, Raptors and Wizards have played. Wade is even among the league leaders in fourth quarter scoring. With the terrific in season acquisitions of Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic, the Heat should make it interesting. You know LeBron still has his doubts with Love and Kyrie Irving going into their first playoffs. It’s why he keeps pushing as he has.
The Wizards may not be laughing with two more beatings after a five-game winning streak. But Marcin Gortat continues to be engaging and even engaged in a Twitter exchange last week with fans who posted on Twitter he was soft and condemning he and partner Nene. You’d think NBA players had better stuff to do—or that anyone did—but a sampling of Gortat’s responses after a league flopping fine were: “So if im soft What r u??; u have to win at least street-ball tournament or something before u get to play pro!; dude u cant even pick right pic for ur profile!!; and worst english speaking front ct? true!!! And they both make 10kk+!! Crazy right!! How about u??” He needs a hobby.
Rajon Rondo would have been much better off being with a losing team in Boston. The trade to Dallas could end up costing him tens of millions of dollars. The Mavs Sunday again collapsed and lost the lead and the game to the Suns once Rondo returned to replace an effective Ray Felton and the Mavs offense shut down. Go figure that one. Had Rondo stayed, teams may have believed he was just ineffective now being with a bad team. In 36 games since being traded to Dallas, Rondo has double figure assists four times. In his last 30 games, he has attempted a total of 19 free throws. As a point guard. It may be tough to go recruit him as a premier free agent.
Talk about your organizational confusion. Ownership in Sacramento now has brought in former Kings player Vlade Divac, with mostly ambassador type involvement for European teams, apparently to run basketball operations as they work on their third coach of the season.
Good for one of the better guys, Lou Amundson, who has been getting a nice look with the woebegone Knicks and made the big baskets and 12 points and 17 rebounds when the Knicks beat the Spurs last week. Amundson had brief and unhappy stops with the Bulls when he played two minutes in 2012-13 and one minute in 2013-14. He told the Arizona Republic as a college English major and now playing for Phil Jackson he should write his own journey to counter 11 Rings: “12 Different Places.”