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Rest of NBA should forget about pitching to Kevin Durant

Rest of NBA should forget about pitching to Kevin Durant

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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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

The Eastern Conference standings are so closely bunched as of today that the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers. With roughly a dozen games remaining for each NBA team, much can and likely will change over the next several weeks.

That is common for this time of the year, but a closer look suggests we could be in for some chaos in the final stretch. There are lopsided remaining schedules and impending personnel changes which could all contribute to one of the wildest regular season finishes in recent memory.

The Wizards are smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race and have their own circumstances to navigate. Let's take a team-by-team look at the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, knowing the top two seeds are all but locked up by the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics...


3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29, 12 games left)

Monday was a crazy day for the Cavaliers. First, they announced their head coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence to deal with an undiagnosed health issue. He will be replaced by associate head coach Larry Drew in the interim as he hopes to heal up before the playoffs.

Then, news broke they were getting Kevin Love back from a broken wrist after missing 21 games. Love returned to put up 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Cavaliers will be without their coach for an undefined period of time, but now have their second-best player back on the court. That makes their final part of the season extra fascinating.

The Cavs are the team to watch of this group. Even though this season has been filled with turmoil, they still have LeBron James. He and Love have helped form the core of the last three Eastern Conference champion teams. If they pick things up, it's not crazy to consider them among the favorites to get out of the East again.


4. Indiana Pacers (41-30, 11 games left)

The Pacers are mostly healthy as they only feature a slew of minor injuries to big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. But Indiana's remaining schedule is unusually tough and it could make the difference in where they end up.

With only 11 games remaining, the Pacers still have to play the first-place Toronto Raptors once and the Golden State Warriors twice. Six of their last eight games will be on the road. They also see the Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers.

The Clippers are currently ninth in the West and battling to make the playoffs. The Pacers will play them twice.

Keep in mind the Wizards own the season series over Indiana and will have a playoff seeding tiebreaker if they end up with the same record. Also worth noting is the Pacers have been much better at home (24-13) than on the road (17-17) this season.


5. Washington Wizards (40-30, 12 games left)

Though the Wizards' schedule is finally letting up soon from the 13 straight playoff teams stretch they have had to endure dating back to February, they too have a tough road ahead. The Wizards still have to play the Spurs (twice), Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nuggets. Four of their last six games are on the road and they have three back-to-back sets in their final seven games.

That's brutal. They may not have to see the defending champions twice like Indiana does, but the Wizards don't exactly have it easy.

The Wizards will, however, get John Wall back at some point. The five-time All-Star is slowly but surely working his way back and could participate in a full practice by the end of the week. Ideally they will get some games under his belt before the playoffs, but any time an All-NBA player is coming back to your team it's a good thing.

The problem is that there is little room for error in the standings and head coach Scott Brooks will have to reinsert Wall into the lineup during a tough schedule and while Wall is on a minutes restriction. It will be a tricky task to balance his lineups. 


6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-30, 13 games left)

The Sixers may have the most ideal road ahead of these four teams, at least in terms of their schedule. They still have the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Cavs and Bucks. But none of those teams are the juggernauts that Golden State, Houston and Toronto are. And of their final 13 games, the Sixers will play nine against teams outside of the playoff picture.

Philly also does not have to reincorporate a major piece into their rotation, like the Cavs do with Love and the Wizards with Wall. Their biggest injury is to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. If he does return this season, it will likely be in a minimal role, at least to start.

What could work against the Sixers is their inexperience and recent struggles against good teams. The Sixers are relying on very young players who have never been here before to carry the way. And since Valentine's Day, Philly has just one win against a team above the .500 mark, when they beat the Cavs on March 1. During those 14 games since Feb. 14, they have beaten up on the bad teams but lost to the Wizards, Bucks, Pacers and Heat (twice), basically all the teams surrounding them in the standings. 

Philly also lost their season series against the Cavs and Pacers, tied with the Wizards and are down 2-1 against the Bucks with one game to go. They may go to the finish line without a playoff tiebreaker against all the teams they would want one against.

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Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

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Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

After a sensational freshman season at the University of Oklahoma, point guard Trae Young plans to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, according to a report by ESPN.

Young will be one of the most fascinating prospects in this class given the extreme highs and lows of his one college season. He vaulted into the top 10 in most mock drafts after beginning his freshman year on fire, but then began to slip over the final months as his shooting percentage dropped.


Right now the Wizards are lined up to be in the late teens, so it's unlikely he falls to their range. But at this point it's difficult to predict where he will go, whether that is top five or later in the lottery.

It really could go either way. Some teams may see him as a Steph Curry-like scorer who can hit shots from unusually deep range. There were certainly times where Young backed up those comparisons.

Teams could see his flaws as a result of opposing defenses honing in on him because they could at the college level. In the NBA he may have more space and therefore be able to play to his strengths.


Or, teams could look at the fact he shot 36.1 percent from three on a whopping 10.2 attempts per game as a sign he is a chucker. He also led the nation in turnovers, commiting 24 more than the next guy. Young averaged 5.2 giveaways per game.

While Curry is the best-case scenario, Jimmer Fredette may be the worst-case. Fredette was the 10th overall pick in 2011 and now plays in China. 

Young will be an intriguing prospect in the draft because the ceiling is high and the basement is low. 

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