It's probably time for everyone -- not just the Wizards -- to move on to Plan B for this summer. More than 20 teams will have salary cap room and Kevin Durant's name has come up as a target for the N.Y. Knicks, L.A. Lakers, Houston Rockets and Miami Heat.
His Oklahoma City Thunder, who upset the second-best team in the NBA in the previous round by wiping the floor with the 67-win San Antonio Spurs, are on the verge of eliminating the 73-win Golden State Warriors to get back to the Finals.
With Durant becoming a free agent this summer, exactly what motivation would he have for leaving now other than a distaste for living in Oklahoma City? Besides, if he signs a shorter deal (two years with an opt out for 2017), he can make more money because the salary cap rises from $92 million next season to about $108 million for 2017-18. And with 10 years vested by then, he gets a higher percentage of the cap of 35% rather than 30%.
He can make his final decision concurrent with his star teammates, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka who become free agents in 2017, too.
The Thunder, a team known for lacking poise down the stretch even under first-year coach Billy Donovan, have the NBA stunned. They've flipped the script on a team that was being compared favorably to the 72-win Chicago Bulls under Michael Jordan.
Now the Thunder might warrant such comparisons with how they're dominating the NBA playoffs. It's not clear why it took so long for them to figure it out but they have -- finally. My observations:
- Switching. It isn't a sign of weakness. Doing it successfully in today's game is a sign of strength and a team with athleticism, length and good defensive instincts can neutralize small ball lineups. Durant, noted as just a scorer and a great one at that, is showing multiple efforts, finally putting his 7-5 wingspan to use. Donovan has his team switching everything to cover the shooters for Golden State, taking away three-point looks and layups at the rim. In one fascinating sequence in Game 4, Durant defended Steph Curry up high and tipped a pass to the wing. Curry moved off the ball and ran him through a screen, so Durant switched onto Shaun Livingston. Westbrook was undersized on the low block defending Draymond Green, so Durant peeled off Livingston to provide helpside at the rim and forced Green to pass to the opposite block to Livingston for a point-blank look at the rim. But Durant was a step ahead of that play, darting across the lane and blocking his shot to get the loose ball that initated a transition play for Oklahoma City.
- The key to winning a championship isn't small ball. It's being able to play small when necessary and big. The Thunder have a unique advantage over everyone in that they can do both simultaneously. Ibaka is 6-10, can jump out of the building and has three-point range. He's too quick for Andrew Bogut and too superior athletically for Green. Durant is 6-10 with a ridiculous wingspan. Steven Adams, who was interviewed by the Wizards during 2013 predraft camp in Chicago, is a 7-foot defensive gem who cleans up everyone's mess in the paint.
- It's not clear whether Donovan is a genius or if he just stumbled onto this idea in the postseason, similar to the questions raised about then-Wizards coach Randy Wittman when he finally opted to go with Paul Pierce as the "stretch" four in the 2015 playoffs after rarely deploying it during the regular season. Moving Ibaka to center and Durant at the four spot seems like a no-brainer. It has caught the Warriors off-guard, just the way Wittman's move confused the Toronto Raptors en route to a sweep.
- Back in 2012, when the Thunder lost in their only NBA Finals appearance to the Miami Heat in five games, then-coach Scott Brooks (now Wizards coach) stubbornly refused to pull Kendrick Perkins off the floor. For the record, I picked the Thunder to win that series in six games because of the Ibaka factor. As he'd showed in dominanting Pau Gasol when they beat the L.A. Lakers, Ibaka is a versatile big who can play multiple positions and was a better matchup vs. the Heat's Chris Bosh in the middle. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra went with Bosh as his starting center after a Game 1 loss. To Brooks' detriment, he stuck with Perkins, an immobile, traditional big who was very good at setting screens but that was about it. The Heat won the next four games.
- Curry is the deserving two-time MVP, but Westbrook is the better overall player. No, this isn't a flop. These are two totally separate issues. In any other season, Westbrook might've nabbed the award. Curry shot at historic pace and led Golden State on a historic run. But if you're building a team from scratch, it's difficult to take any point guard over Westbrook. There's an argument to be made for Chris Paul but he doesn't have the same physical gifts. Westbrook has long been underappreciated and overly criticized for being himself -- a big, physical, super-athletic point guard who had to learn the position coming out of college. It took a while. While he's not the three-point shooter that Curry is, Westbrook's hustle and defensive abilities are what separate him from other top players at his position. Sure, he'll take some ill-advised shots and have some turnovers that'll be head-scratching. That's OK. Now the Thunder have five players on the court at all times that play with his motor in bigger bodies. Golden State and the Spurs have broken opponents down with their pressure offense, repeated ball movment and actions that wear down the defense. The Thunder are using pressure offense and defense to demoralize opponents. It's has been 48 minutes of hell. There's no team left in the playoffs -- not even the Cleveland Cavaliers -- that has an answer for what the Thunder have brought to the table.
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