March 11th, 2020 will forever be known as the day the world stood still, the day that sports stopped. It’s been a little under 3 weeks (21 loooooong days) since the NBA shut down amid the coronavirus, aka COVID-19, aka code-19 pandemic. I know this has put one big thing in perspective, what the world looks like without sports, and I don’t like it one bit.
Living in a No Sports Zone with COVID-19
Baby, Come Back!
This is showing us how important sports are to our lives. You know how you’ve got that empty, pit drop in your stomach feeling after losing your first love? That’s how it felt hearing the announcement NBA was suspended indefinitely after Utah Jazz C Rudy Gobert tested positive for that ‘Rona.
Since that discovery, the COVID-19 pandemic has made its rounds in the sports world getting to several well-known athletes and even our favorite announcers. Reaching the likes of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and ESPN’s beloved NBA analyst Doris Burke. So, this thing is real!
I’ve been watching sports since the tender age of eight, (I’m 43 now), when my father introduced me to football. It was Super Bowl XX Sunday when the Chicago Bears defeated the New England Patriots 46-10. Like for everyone, in those 30-plus years since we’ve never seen anything like this. So, what does one do when you’re quarantined and stuck in the “No Sports Zone?” (For those that remember, that’s an ode to the Twilight Zone intro).
Finding an Alternative
Well if you’re like me, you get familiar with that lady in the house. Oh, that’s my wife, and it turns out she’s very interesting. I also finally have time to catch up with all those Netflix shows and movies I promised myself I would watch. My personal fave is The Ozarks with Jason Bateman, I’m already ready for season four! Another one to check out is the documentary, Tiger King, all I can say is whoa!
How about some personal gains, I have a language self-learning disc set I’ve had for the last five years. I think it’s time to crack that open. Hopefully, when we come out of this quarantine I’ll be a new, Spanish-speaking me (I wonder what my Vegas odds are). But this is a sports column so let’s get back to the business at hand.
Not All In
You know who else is going on as business as usual? The NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell said let’s keep the party going, starting with one of the most exciting free agents periods in recent memory. Maybe it’s sports being halted and what we’re going through that added to the excitement but none the less it is.
By the way, the 2020 NFL Draft is still going as scheduled, April 23rd-25th. This was truly a free agent frenzy. We wondered what the Bears were going to do, after 20 years of dominance in the AFC East Tom Brady left New England, Drew Brees coming back to the big easy & more.
Obviously, the biggest signing was Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but this is Chicago, so let’s look at our hometown Bears. In my opinion there free agent moves were, meh, we’ll delve into particulars at a later time, for now here are the key signings. EDGE Robert Quinn, (an upgrade from former first-round pick Leonard Floyd), tight end Jimmy Graham, bringing back linebacker Danny Trevathan, and trading for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
Hang In There
Though we’re in a “No Sports Zone” now, we can use our time to reset and come out refreshed on the other side. One good thing that came of this is the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, is being released early so, yay! Now if the NFL season becomes in jeopardy of being canceled, then some panic may set in. Until then, let’s be safe and keep the positive vibes.
As the dust settles from what was a fantastic All-Star weekend in the great city of Chicago. The NBA has been back for nearly a week now and the discussion of playoff seeding and “tanking seeding” are all the rave.
We’ll be discussing things you want to look out for a be wary of because the playoffs are a great predictor of things to come. Stars become superstars in the playoffs. And the only way to win titles is to have superstars. So let’s begin with the Eastern Conference:
Previewing the Eastern Conference Playoffs
The Milwaukee Bucks sit eight games above the Toronto Raptors and have a firm grip on home-court advantage throughout the playoffs (5.5 Games). Giannis Antetokounmpo is the front-runner for MVP for the second season in a row averaging 29.7 PPG and 13.7 RPG. The Bucks look like a clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference and reach the NBA Finals, but let’s slow our roll.
Kawhi Leonard may have left the East, but there are some stars to be born in the playoffs. Pascal Siakam is looking to ascend into superstardom by leading the Raptors back to the NBA Finals to defend their title. But the number one threat to the Bucks and their title chance is the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics are third in the East and are looking prime to make a deep run in these playoffs. The Celtics have three players averaging over 20 PPG in Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown. Gordon Hayward averages nearly 18 PPG as well. They are well-coached by Brad Stevens who made a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals with a less talented squad. Boston is third in points allowed per game (106.5) and has proven to be good on the road.
If you think about the top-five players in the series, There’s an argument that the Celtics have four of the top five. Yes, Khris Middleton was an All-Star. But he hasn’t proven that he can show up in the playoffs. Last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton scored no more than 14 points in any game. Giannis can’t depend on him. The Celtics have the talent and depth to take the Bucks on for supremacy of the East.
Teams 4-6 in the eastern race are the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Indiana Pacers. These three teams are very solid and talented but do not pose a real threat to the East. The 76ers have the most talent but can’t seem to get it together. They’re an amazing home team (27-2) but abysmal on the road (9-21). This team can play with the Bucks and Celtics but will be minimized due to the major difference in coaching. Stevens and Mike Budenholzer are in a different league compared to Brent Brown.
Miami has Butler and a hard-working group of players, but they’ll be overwhelmed in the playoffs. They could still win a series if they get the right matchup though. The Pacers are a good, well-run team. And their superstar Victor Oladipo recently returned from a gruesome injury. This year in the playoffs the Pacers should look to steal a first-round series win, and gain confidence for the future.
The seventh and eighth-seeded teams are the Brooklyn Nets and the Orlando Magic. Well, let’s just say this. These teams are not winning a title this season. But the trajectory of these two teams is going to be different over the next few seasons.
The Nets are without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The loss of those two is obviously why they can’t compete for a title yet. But the expectations will rise in Brooklyn next year. Orlando must be in the playoffs by accident because who knows what they’re trying to do as a franchise. They need to start shipping some of these pieces off and try to accumulate talent.
I will leave you with these final thoughts. Superstars win in the playoffs. This has been happening ever since the birth of the game. The Bucks have the best player in the world in some eyes (not mine). But I believe the Celtics will be representing the East in the NBA finals. What is today? Yeah, mark it down. If you want to jump in on the debate please follow me on twitter @illiniRyan7 and let’s talk some hoops.
The NBA is about to undergo a seismic shift. Current powers are set to topple while newcomers will emerge for a shot at a championship
Free agency begins in the NBA on July 1.
Players around the league will change teams, and thus, the outlooks of those teams. The right move could land you squarely into contention for a title, while the wrong signing can set your franchise back for any number of years.
It’s kind of a big deal.
With that, let’s take a look at some pairings for this crop of free agents, particularly those commanding max (or near-max) money.
None of these have been mentioned as even a remote possibility, but we won’t let that stop us. The goal is to create a duo that would be both fun to watch and have a legit chance at sustained success.
Conspicuously omitted from the festivities is one Kevin Durant. The forward would be no worse than the number two (and most likely the top) target on the market and a fun piece to pair with another star for this exercise.
That is if he weren’t set to miss most if not all of next season recovering from a ruptured Achilles.
Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton
Mirror mirror on the wall, this is a pairing of two players with similar abilities.
Both Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton are thought of more as off-ball, glue guys than true superstars in their own right. That could be beneficial against opponents defensive gameplans; who do you key on?
Conventional wisdom says that Thompson will be maxed by the Golden State Warriors and rehabs his torn ACL before returning around February. He averaged 21.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists on a .467/.402/.816 shooting line in 2018; just under his career-high in points and matching his high-mark in rebounds.
That same line of thinking would suggest that the Milwaukee Bucks do whatever it takes to max Middleton. He averaged 18.3 points, 6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and slashed .441/.378/.837.
They need to in order to keep their Eastern Conference finalist team intact and to keep a certain MVP happy and, ultimately, in town.
Klay took 80.1 percent of his shots off an assist, canned 42 percent of his catch and shoot opportunities, but also hit 44 percent of his pull-ups. Middleton had the ball more; over 57 percent of his makes came unassisted. He dropped 41.2 percent of his pull up attempts and generated nearly as many points per catch and shoot attempt (4.0) as he did per drive (4.4).
All of that and we have not even covered their defensive chops yet.
Middleton was top-20 in the NBA in defensive win shares while Thompson’s 108.5 defensive rating (and first appearance on an all-defense team) belies the defender he is. Separate they have been the ideal complementary pieces. Together they would be a coach’s dream.
Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris
What the previous pairing offers is to two-way ability, the pairing of Kemba Walker and Tobias Harris is to the offensive end. Put simply: they get buckets. They won’t provide much defensively, but they combined to average 45.6 points per game in 2018.
That would have been 11th among the top-two scorers on any team and Harris appeared on two of those teams.
Walker has been doing all the lifting for the Charlotte Hornets since 2011.
The three-time All-Star made his first All-NBA team with 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game on .434/.356/.844 shooting. The points and boards were both career-highs while earning All-NBA honors means he is supermax eligible.
But it is not inconceivable that the Hornets let him walk.
Harris has been a hired gun (without the hired part) his entire career.
Never scoring less than 11 points per game after his rookie campaign, he has been traded five times, including draft night. Harris split 2018 between the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers but still averaged a career-high 20 points to go with 7.9 boards with a .487/.397/.866 slash line, all career-highs.
Putting the two professional scorers together would not hinder either player.
Walker is ball dominant (over 71 percent of his makes were unassisted in 2018), but Harris was equally adept off as on, sporting a 49.9 to 50.1 assisted/unassisted ratio. Walker got most of his points off of drives (9.1 per game) and pull-up jumpers (10.5) and Harris (5.8 on drives, 5.0 on pull-ups, and 4.3 on catch & shoot) scores, period.
Together this max pair would give defenses all they could handle. Both of their 2018 campaigns featured numerous career-high marks, hinting that their best ball is ahead of them. Their ideal situation would be on a defensive-oriented team where they could be the primary generators of offense.
Their pick and pop would be borderline unfair.
D’Angelo Russell and DeMarcus Cousins
2018 was wonky for different reasons for this potential max pair. D’Angelo Russell broke out and led the Brooklyn Nets to their first playoff berth since 2014. DeMarcus Cousins spent most of his 2018 recovering from a torn Achilles (shout to KD), appearing in 30 regular season games with the Warriors to end the season.
Russell’s path to success was…bumpy.
Traded from the Los Angeles Lakers for off the court reasons, he put up career-highs across the board averaging 21.1/3.9/7 and shot 43.4 percent from the floor and 36.9 from deep, both personal bests. Rumors of the Nets not-so-secret pursuit of Kyrie Irving could mean Russell needs a new home.
Cousins took flak for joining the Dubs to chase a ring, but he also did it to prove he could be a team player. He did that, returning from a quad injury suffered early in the playoffs to play in all six Finals games. Those results were mixed, but he averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 boards, and 3.6 assists in 2018.
Unfortunately, two straight years with leg injuries likely suppress his value.
Russell cut down on his turnovers and posted the highest player efficiency rating of his career. Boogie’s growth as a player and teammate is a bigger development than his down stats in what is a particularly unique situation with the Warriors.
If he is able to get a long-term deal in free agency, he would be wise to consider it regardless of where it comes from.
The immediate image that thoughts of this duo conjures is a deadly scoring combo that can do so from all three levels.
Cousins did not operate as a roll man much (8.8 percent) for Golden State (Russell ran the action nearly 50 percent of the time) instead being utilized most in the post (21.9 percent) and as a spot-up shooter (24.3 percent). Still, he is an adept passer and Russell hit 39.4 percent of his catch and shoot triples.
Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving
This max pair is probably best described as an enigma wrapped in a question.
Kawhi Leonard followed up a lost 2017-18 season to lead the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Championship, winning Finals MVP for his efforts. Most thought that the return of Kyrie Irving would carry the Boston Celtics into the Finals, but they ended up being sent home a round earlier instead.
Leonard’s exit from the San Antonio Spurs was very public but very one-sided. He let his play do most of the talking averaging 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds during the regular season and 30.5 points and 9.1 boards in the playoffs; all career-high marks.
Now he is the big fish in free agency (shout to KD) and reportedly choosing between Toronto and the Clippers.
Irving was traded to the Celtics last year and put up 24.4/3.8/5.1 and shot 49.1 percent from the floor (career-high) and 40.8 percent on (a career-high) 6.8 threes per game. This year it was 23.8/5/6.9 on .487/.401/..873 shooting.
Rather than putting the Cs over the top, though, he was often the root of the problem; butting heads with many in the organization.
Fit should be of no concern on the floor, Leonard’s Raptors were a lot different from the DeMar DeRozan-led squads; three of the five playoff starters for Toronto were in their first year in The North. Despite Irving flopping as a leader in Boston, his having played (well) with LeBron James means he is comfortable being off the ball.
Both of these guys are savants at what they do.
Leonard is the only person keeping Klay Thompson from being the best two-way player in the NBA and Irving is a shot taker and maker with a flair for the big stage. Between this shot from 2016 by Irving and this gem from this year’s playoffs by Leonard, these two paired would be the cause of a lot of heartbreak across the association.
Kevin Durant’s Warning to Kawhi Leonard
Kevin Durant’s injury proves Kawhi Leonard should stay in The North. Perhaps that is a bit too simple. Stated another way, their handling of Kawhi Leonard should lead him to re-sign with the Toronto Raptors. The Achilles tear suffered by the Warriors star is proof of the importance of managing injuries.
The Blame Game
Now, that is not to say that the Golden State Warriors brass handled Durant’s reported calf strain irresponsibly. And much has already been said about who is to blame for KD taking the floor in the first place. But the simple answer is everyone is culpable. From distraught Bob Myers to Steve Kerr to Durant himself.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. There was no other course of action. Once Durant was cleared it was a no-brainer that he would suit up with the Dubs title hopes hanging precariously in the balance. And, if we are being honest, had he not played in Game 5 and Golden State lost, we are likely having the same conversation publicly that had reportedly been brewing in the locker room.
This is not about Durant though. This is about why Kawhi needs to re-up with Toronto. At least the short-term deal he is rumored to be considering. They were willing to take the risk on him and his injured quad initially. But then they went the extra mile and sat him 22 games with the ever-popular ‘load management’ designation. That is a level of proactivity that he likely would not have gotten elsewhere.
Remember, the injury (and how it was handled) is what sent his entire relationship with the San Antonio Spurs organization downward. Not only did Leonard lose faith in the team medical staff, but he also had a very public (albeit one-sided) falling out with Head Coach Gregg Popovich. At one point, Tony Parker compared the injury to one he sustained, saying it was “100 times worse” than Leonard’s.
Ahead of the Curve
Toronto also managed a 17-5 record in games Leonard missed. The proven ability to not be burdened with carrying the entire load has to be appealing. If Kawhi is indeed concerned with his longevity, being overworked has to factor into that. This is another thing other teams cannot offer; rather they can promise it but Toronto has shown it. There is a big difference.
The other team rumored to be at or near the top of Kawhi’s destination list is the Los Angeles Clippers. He is, after all a California kid and had stated that L.A. was his preferred destination prior to being traded. They can offer much of what Toronto has provided Kawhi (load management, supporting cast, etc.) in theory with the obvious added bonus of location. Nothing Toronto can do about that.
West Coast or North Side
All things considered, the quote about the worth of a “bird in the hand…” might be the best way to describe this situation. Leonard can certainly go West and hope that the Clips can replicate what the Raptors have already set out to create. But then he would have to build up the type of trust that the Spurs lost and the Raptors have been trying to earn for a year.
One thing that might get brought up (by Raptors brass) is how Los Angeles handled their previous franchise star, Blake Griffin. They traded him after a lot of theatrics and a max deal. But I am old enough to remember when the Raptors traded their franchise star for a quiet, disgruntled player dealing with an injury. Funny how what side of those deals one is on can shape how they are viewed.
Durant’s Injury a Warning to Kawhi
You might have noticed that money is conspicuously omitted from the reasoning behind Kawhi needing to stay in Toronto. That is because we all know where he should be if securing the bag is his main objective. But he has shown that it is not necessarily money that drives him. That could lead him back home. It should have him making Toronto his new home.
NBA Finals a Matchup Years in the Making
Each year 2,460 regular season games are played. This year there have already been 76 playoff games played. But in just a few more hours the entire NBA universe will be laser-focused on Scotiabank Arena as the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors square off for game one for the NBA Finals. It is a matchup two years in the making. Kawhi Leonard was forced from action by a Zaza Pachulia closeout in 2017 and the Dubs swept the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi missed most of 2018, including the playoffs, and the Warriors took out the Spurs in five games.
We haven’t really gotten to see a fully healthy Kawhi against the NBA’s latest dynasty. He had 26/8/3 in ‘17 before exiting. In his lone appearance against them this season it was 37/8/3, 58.3 percent from the floor and, 50 percent from deep. He averages 16.5/6.5/2.2 against Golden State, but that includes games before all parties reached their current peak levels. Who knows if he can keep it up, but the Klaw has been asserting his dominance all postseason.
Leonard averaged 26.6/7.3/3.3 in the regular season, one of only five players with those numbers. He also slashed 49.6/37.1/84.5, marks matched by only five others, none of whom are in the same breath as Kawhi. But in the playoffs, Leonard has been unconscious. He is averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 boards, and 3.8 assists on a 50.7/38.8/87.5 shooting line. The quiet superstar started this postseason with crazy efficiency (55.6/53.8/89.3 in the first round), and while that has waned, he has put the team on his back. Just in case you forgot, he did this.
The Western Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks was different. Pascal Siakam was the Robin to Leonard’s Batman through the first two rounds averaging 20.8 points. Perhaps still bothered by an injured calf, he only averaged 14.5 versus the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell served as the cavalry. Lowry, in particular, has been big. His floor game has been steady, but he has also upped his scoring output from 11.4 in the first round to 13.1 in round two. He goes into the Finals scoring 19.2 points on 50.7/46.5/84.4 shooting versus Milwaukee.
If Toronto is going to pull off the upset, they are going to need more from their complementary parts. Siakam and Lowry have taken turns as top wingman. But the Raptors need the Spicy P from rounds one and two and for Lowry to stay hot. One has to imagine they will also need more from Marc Gasol and Danny Green. Gasol has done yeoman’s work in the playoffs, clogging the paint and generally making smart decisions with the ball. But he faces the real risk of being unplayable in this series should Golden State decide to go small. Green joins Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka as contributors who will need to have a big game here and there to finish the job.
When Kevin Durant went down, many in the NBA world questioned if there would be a significant dropoff. At a minimum, the expectation was they would need their best player eventually, right? Well all Steph Curry has done in the five games since is average 35.8 points on 46.6 percent shooting (41.7 percent 3PT) with 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists. Much has been made of the Warriors success sans Durant but with Curry in the lineup. Still, those are stellar numbers. Should Durant remain out and/or Steph stays en fuego, he is a good bet to earn his first FInals MVP.
Klay Thompson has found his stroke as well. He has put up 22.6 points per game since Durant’s injury. In fact, Thompson’s scoring output has gone up each round; from 17.3 in the opening round to 19.2 in the Conference Semis to 21.5 in the sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. He will also be tasked with defending Leonard. It is a tall order indeed. But if there is anyone up to the task, it’s Thompson, perhaps the best two-way guard in the NBA. It will be two very similar players facing off. That is when Kawhi is not chasing Steph around a multitude of screens.
The elephant in the room, Durant has already been ruled out for game one. Most recently, the idea was broached that a Warriors title without him is the Easy Money Sniper’s worst nightmare. He would certainly bristle at the notion, but it should not be dismissed by the rest of us so easily. This could be used as an opportunity to diminish Durant’s standing in the league hierarchy. That will not happen here. It has already been noted that KD is so great is that the Warriors diverge from what made them great prior to his arrival.
Draymond Green is healthy and locked in this postseason. His job gets interesting this series as he will have to deal with Siakam. Green is the defensive anchor in the Bay. He roams the middle of the floor, setting the defense and playing center field. He will have to stay with Siakam, who despite seeing his numbers fall of late, is always active on both ends of the floor. He (Siakam) generates most of his offense in the paint but will likely play a bit more of a perimeter-based game to draw Green away from the basket. That is where Kevon Looney will have to keep giving solid minutes. That is, of course, unless Boogie Cousins makes his return to action.
In The End
There will have to be significant contributions by the benches, that should go without saying. But this series will undoubtedly feature a lot of 40-plus’s in the box scores for the starters of both teams. As things stand, the Warriors are still themselves, with or without KD and Boogie. But what do they do if they keep winning when those two are ready to return? Do they rush them back if they fall into an early deficit? Would either player try to force their way back into the rotation/lineup?
The Raptors are not immune to the nagging questions. This team is by and large the same group that wilted in the presence of LeBron James three straight years, including last year’s sweep. How will Lowry and Siakam perform this round? Especially if the Warriors defense shuts Leonard down. Will Gasol and Green provide stats that show up in the boxscore? Maybe more important than any of that, has Toronto done enough to secure the (sorry in advance) Klawtograph? Will they have to win it all to do so (and will that even be enough)? We are about to find out.
Making the Case for Kevin Durant as Best Player in NBA
With no Lebron James in the playoffs (much to the chagrin of many), Kevin Durant has an opportunity to solidify his place as the best player in the NBA. It is a conversation that many believe is long overdue. Now before anyone gets riled up, let’s take inventory of why this is significant. Several factors make this a bigger deal than most people realize.
For starters, the obvious cause for pause is the team that Durant plays for and the players he plays with. Steph Curry is a two-time (and first unanimous) MVP. Klay Thompson is one of the best two-way guards in the NBA. And Draymond Green is the heart and soul of the group as well as a solid defender himself. But Durant, Durant is the difference.
Easy Money Sniper
Sure, the Warriors won a title without KD. They also came back from down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals against Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. Golden State would go on to lose the ensuing Finals against Lebron and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That led to a parking lot phone call from Green and the rest is two more Larry O’Brien trophies for the Dubs with two Finals MVP awards for Durant.
Despite averaging 25.8/7.1/5.4 while slashing .524/.384/.883 during his time in the Bay, Durant has often been looked at as the ‘1A’ to Steph’s ‘1’. When looking at the numbers since Durant joined the Warriors, one might conclude that they are more equals than any sort of hierarchy. Curry’s 26.3/4.9/6 (.476/.424/.911) since they became the ‘Hampton’s Five’ rivals Durant’s output and even exceeds it in some aspects.
When parsing the numbers, however, the two superstars’ playoff numbers paint a different picture altogether. During the two championship runs with both Curry and Durant, the former averaged 26.9/6.2/6.1 and slashed .468/.407/.919. The latter put up 28.8/7.8/4.5 on a .514/.379/.898 line. What we see is while Curry is still a key component, but Durant’s scoring and rebounding (i.e. more scoring opportunities) set him above his teammate.
Detractors (and Curry truthers) will almost certainly point out Golden State’s 25-9 record sans KD. Compare that to their 19-15 record minus Steph and the opinions start to formulate. Aside from the two interestingly missing the exact same amount of time the two years prior to this one, Golden State appears to miss the presence of the Chef more.
The problem is, all the missed game data is from the regular season. And we have already shown the disparity between the two in the postseason. But barring injury (please, no) there will be no sample size to draw from in the playoffs. So how can we determine who is the more important factor? This could be a case of Occam’s razor.
If the simplest answer is usually right, what is it? It is this: Kevin Durant is the most important player to the Golden State Warriors championship aspirations. Now, that’s not to say that the Warriors would fall off a cliff if Durant were not there (more on that later). But for as good as the Dubs are as a whole they are, for the most part, not iso players.
For all the talk of beautiful basketball, Durant is one of only nine players to average at least three iso attempts per game during the regular season. Of those nine players, only two (Lebron and John Wall) failed to make the playoffs. When things slow down in the playoffs, teams need players that can get their own shot. Steph and Klay only had 1.3 and 0.9 attempts, respectively.
So far this year in the playoffs, Durant is fourth in ISO attempts. Last year’s postseason he was third. Year one in Oakland was different, though; he ranked 20th. One interesting tidbit, he is actually taking fewer shots (3.6) in ISO this year but is shooting just 36 percent on those plays. That is down from 44 percent on 5.7 shots a game last year.
Golden State led the league in assists for the fifth consecutive season, even with Durant’s ISO usage. Clearly, he is by no means a ball stopper. But he is still just as unique a circumstance on his whole team as he is in the league as a whole. A team founded offensively on making the extra pass is largely reliant on a player that plays 1-on-1 at a rate three times higher than his next closest teammate. Every year since KD has arrived, his ISO attempts have risen as Steph’s have fallen.
King of the Castle
You know who teams switch up philosophies for? Their best players. Just look at James and the Lakers. When wooing a franchise-altering type of talent, organizations acquiesce a little. Said talent (rightly) becomes the focal point within the scheme. Well, some players are so good they alter the way teams execute their scheme inherently.
Durant has impacted the Warriors in that very way. And it wasn’t through a hostile takeover. It was the gradual progression of his game meshing with the Golden State system and the ball finding the best player. They say “ball don’t lie” for a reason. But what about the man that many have said KD has been following in the path of, with conspiracy theorists even pointing to their championship poses as evidence.
Lebron is still in the NBA, despite the void his absence may have left in our playoff-lives. The King still, in year 16, averaged 27.4/8.5/8.3. That was better than his first years in Miami and returning to Cleveland. It is also better than Durant’s numbers, but is the gap wide enough to say James still reigns over the Association? We may have to wait till next year to get the definitive answer on that after the tumultuous season the Lakers had clouded the situation.
You Know Who He Is
When Durant sat in front of the media gallery and made the proclamation, “I am Kevin Durant. You know who I am” I felt that. It felt like a player finally fully comfortable in his skin. His transformation from babyface to heel is well documented, but his acclimation to not being universally beloved was not as quick or smooth. Clashes with the media (and teammates) overshadowed a player’s game superseding the system he was determined to be a part of.
There are those who will argue Durant has been the best player in the NBA since 2014, his MVP-winning season when he averaged 32/7.4/5.5 with a .503/.391/.873 slash line. Since then he has averaged 27.5/7.3/5.3 at .514/.387/.881 clips. James has averaged 26.5/7.7/7.8 while shooting .530/.353/.712 over that same span. The numbers are again comparable, Durant scores more and with better efficiency from deep and the free throw line. Bron’s do-it-all game has him ahead in rebounds and assists and shooting a higher percentage from the floor.
In the playoffs, the discussion gets even more interesting. Durant, over the past two postseasons, put up 28.8/7.8/4.5 on .514/.379/.898 shooting. James has put up an insane 33.5/9.1/8.5 while shooting .550/.376/.725. Their head-to-head Finals match way back in 2012 favored a prime James (28.6/10.2/7.4, .472/.188/.826) over a third-year pro in Durant (30.6/6/2.2, .548/.394/.839), though the latter was the more effective and efficient scorer even then.
Say That to Say This
We can get into the off/on stats (hint: the Warriors are by and large better with Durant on the floor) but we already know the answers. Golden State’s best player is Kevin Durant. Curry may be their most important, but that is an entirely different conversation in my opinion. And that is where the KD’s path may take him away from the team he sacrificed more than Thanos to join.
The rumors have swirled all year that Durant may leave while seeing and hearing the stories and dustups with media and even the man who made that history-altering phone call from the parking lot. KD can be a tough person to get a read on. But even before becoming the hyper-sensitive turned at-peace superstar, he let it be known his goal was to be the best player in the NBA, a goal that seems impossible to achieve in the Bay.
No matter what he does, Durant will never reach the heights in the eyes of the public as long as he is on the Warriors. They will always be ‘Steph’s team’. That is why it makes so much sense for Durant to move on after achieving his goal of winning championships. It is also why the stories rubbed him the wrong way and why the spat with Green occurred. This feels like both the last hurrah for the Hampton’s Five, and in many ways, the start of the Kevin Durant-era in the NBA.