Jordan Bell needed to be humbled -- how a 'deep conversation' with Durant changed his mindset


Jordan Bell needed to be humbled -- how a 'deep conversation' with Durant changed his mindset

HOUSTON -- Jordan Bell’s next chance to remind folks of his vast potential comes this week, maybe as soon as Monday night. Should he flourish, forgive him if he jogs over to hug Warriors teammate Kevin Durant.

For seven weeks, Durant’s voice has been echoing about Bell’s head and not because they’ve been talking every day. It’s what Durant said back on April 5 that continues to influence Bell.

The Warriors had lost by 20 at Indiana, with coach Steve Kerr using such words as “pathetic” and “embarrassing” to describe his team’s effort. There was no joy, and no comfort, either, other than the team flying back home to the Bay Area.

Durant saw an opportunity help a teammate and seized upon it.

“On the plane back, KD came over and sat next to me,” Bell recalled to NBC Sports Bay Area. “And we were talking about hoops and how much he loves it. It was a deep conversation. It made me look at him totally differently. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude really loves basketball.’ Everybody around here says they love playing basketball, but he was saying he wants to die playing basketball. I never felt that way; I want to die in my sleep, something peaceful. He loves it on a totally different level.

“Ever since that conversation, it’s been different. I really love basketball, too. So why wouldn’t I go hard and respect the game like he respects the game?”

[LISTEN: Warriors Outsiders Podcast: West Finals predictions; 'what the series comes down to']

Bell in recent weeks has rededicated himself to the game and to his teammates. After tumbling from the playing rotation for several reasons, the forward/center is working his way back and has reached a point where Kerr now says Bell could play meaningful minutes against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, which begin Monday in Houston.

That was the plan back in January, when the Warriors saw star quality -- before Bell’s stunning rise took a few detours.

Bell’s first three months in the NBA allowed the Warriors to fantasize about their immediate future. Despite being a second-round draft pick, he was rapidly developing into a player they knew they would need. At 6-foot-9, he was quick and agile and stunningly efficient for a rookie. His metrics, from field goal percentage to defensive rating, were extraordinary. His defense, in particular, jibed with the way the league operates these days, with big men able to switch out on small men.

The Warriors, players and coaches, would watch Bell soaring above the rim and view him as necessary in their effort to thwart the team growing into their greatest inter-conference threat: the Rockets. He would be the X-factor, the antidote to Houston’s quick, agile and efficient center, Clint Capela.

“He’s perfect for that,” Kerr thought at the time.

And then the ride started to stall. In the first minute of a Jan. 17 game at Chicago, Bell sustained a severe left ankle sprain and missed 14 games over five weeks. He has been trying to catch up ever since, and now he appears ready to remind folks he is more like the baller that captivated Warriors fans in his first 60 days than the dude who has spent most of the last 60 days mostly cheering from the bench.

Bell landed there by taking shortcuts, which can happen in the glow of early success. He was recovering from injury, but even when he was feeling better he didn’t seem fully committed. There might an occasional tardy arrival. He did not, for example, seem to realize that “optional” practices were for veterans, not rookies.

Meanwhile, Kevon Looney, a third-year player who has endured surgery to both hips, surged past Bell and into the playing rotation. Looney knew not to take anything for granted. Not nearly the athlete Bell is, Looney is sound fundamentally and had earned the respect and trust of his teammates.

In retrospect, Bell concedes he had to be humbled.

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “It was coming easy and then I wasn’t playing with the same intensity. I was comfortable for a while. I still tried to play hard, but I wasn’t playing the same.”

The coaches noticed and wondered if maybe Bell had taken his early success for granted. Teammates also noticed, and it eroded some of the trust he had gained.

That’s where Durant comes in. He noted Bell’s work ethic had diminished from earlier in the season, when he was an eager pup trying to make a strong positive impression. He was, in a word, coasting.

“I told him no matter what we do here -- because it’s a different organization, where we’ve got a lot of veterans, guys that have won before, guys that know their routine -- that as a rookie you might not want to follow those examples,” Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area. “You might have to come in on off days or show up before shootarounds.

“Guys like Draymond (Green), Klay (Thompson), myself, we might get to pick and choose our spots, but that’s because we’ve been in it for so long. It was like me saying, ‘Jordan, you have to dive right in, see what you are. See what your groove is and figure it out from there.’ ”

Bell cites a number of reasons for his midseason dip. Twelve days after returning to the lineup from the sprained left ankle, he sustained a less severe sprain of his right ankle. That cost him three games, over eight days. When he returned for good, neither his confidence nor his production was the same.

It was as if the game he thought he mastered by December had evolved to something altogether different in March.

“I realized it’s a learning experience,” Bell says. “Just learning basketball, there’s so much you think you knew. But there’s a whole bunch you haven’t gotten to. It’s like you think you’ve finished the book, and then there’s a 12-volume series that you have to go through.”

Bell is eager to be coached hard, even by teammates, Green in particular. Bell aspires to be similar to Green, gritty hard-nosed player willing to do whatever it takes to win. Green earned that reputation partly because he wouldn’t be an All-Star without a total commitment. Bell, a superior athlete, imagined he would take an easier road.

“I know how young guys have to adjust and I had wanted him to figure it out on his own,” Durant said. “Let him see how he wanted to approach games and practices. And like a lot of young players, you’re trying to figure out the balance. I just told him that no matter if you play or not, your work ethic and your commitment to the game has to stay the same.”

Bell is listening. How could he not? Durant is an MVP, a four-time scoring champ and a nine-time All-Star. The Hall of Fame awaits his induction.

“Even though I see him every day, I was surprised at how hard he goes in every single drill,” Bell said. “If we’re doing layup lines to start practice, he’s the first one dunking -- and hard as hell. Maybe everybody hasn’t had a chance warm up, but he’s like, ‘Let’s go.’

“He told me, ‘The reason why I go so hard is that I really love basketball. I love this game.’ He’s always talking about wanting to get better, just keep getting better, one percent better each day. Just seeing him do it, I tell myself that ‘I’m not going as hard as KD right now, so let me pick it up.’ ”

Bell played a total of 12 minutes during the five-game, first-round series victory over the Spurs. He played 24 minutes in the five-game dispatch of the Pelicans. With Kerr’s belief in matchups and Capela playing a key role for the Rockets, the coach would love to see Bell earn 15-20 minutes per game.

“He’s done a really good job the last few weeks, working hard and staying in engaged,” Kerr said. “He’s played well when we’ve thrown him out there, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put him out there in this series.”

If it works out, and Bell can come close to offsetting Capela, he can thank Durant. If it doesn’t play well, Bell can keep listening to his veteran teammate until he gets it right.

“I just tried to encourage him and let him know that I understand, that I was a rookie too,” Durant said. “And I’m always here to talk if he needs it.”

Can Rockets replicate success Warriors had with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant?

Can Rockets replicate success Warriors had with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant?

When Kevin Durant first joined the Warriors in 2016, skeptics wondered if Golden State could make it work.

Would Durant and Steph Curry be able to co-exist? Would there be enough shots for Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson? Would everyone remain happy with their role and numbers?

Those questions were answered pretty quickly. It took a few months, but Durant, Curry and the Warriors gelled midway through their first season together. They went on to claim the 2016-17 NBA title and ran it back the next season en route to a sweep in the 2017-18 NBA Finals.

Everyone seemed happy. Everyone got their shots. The third season wasn't as smooth, but it still almost ended with a third consecutive title.

After losing the 2019 NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors, Durant decided it was time to move on and signed with the Brooklyn Nets.

But looking back, the experiment was a success. Durant and Curry co-existed, forming one of the most dominant duos in NBA history. Thompson didn't "sacrifice" as much as people thought he would, and ended up signing a max contract with the Warriors this offseason.

Now, a new duo — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — has critics wondering if the players can co-exist.

Both are MVPs and two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA. So, will the Houston Rockets' experiment work? Harden believes it will.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out" Harden told The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”

Harden used a key word there. Sacrifice.

The players on the Warriors were willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

Are Harden and Westbrook capable of making the same sacrifice? Harden is confident their longstanding friendship will help matters.

“It works,” Harden told Feigen. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

While Harden and Westbrook went to the NBA Finals in 2012 as members of the Oklahoma City Thunder, neither has returned since. Both have reached the conference finals in recent years but have gone no further.

Other Western Conference teams have loaded up, but Houston is bringing back a team that is mostly intact from last season and swapped Westbrook for an aging and injury-prone Chris Paul.

So maybe this is finally Houston's year.

[RELATED: Warriors could be 'terrifying' in 2019]

“That’s my boy right there, since I was like 10 or 11 years old,” Harden said of Westbrook. “Obviously, we were teammates for [three] years. Now, we’re at different stages of our careers. I’m excited for the opportunity. I hear a lot of negative things: you can’t, he can’t, they can’t. But we’ll figure it out. I’m excited for the opportunity. I know the rest of the organization is. It’s time.”

The Warriors were able to turn the Curry-Durant partnership into two NBA titles. How many titles, if any, the Rockets can grab with Harden and Westbrook is to be determined. But they certainly have the talent to bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy back to H-Town.

Why this ESPN analyst thinks Warriors could be 'terrifying' next year


Why this ESPN analyst thinks Warriors could be 'terrifying' next year

The Warriors will enter the 2019-20 NBA season in unfamiliar territory.

For one, they won't enter the season as title favorites for the first time since lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2015 after significant roster turnover headlined by Kevin Durant's departure in free agency. For another, they will begin the campaign without star guard Klay Thompson in the opening-night lineup for the first time since 2010 as he recovers from a torn ACL. 

But that isn't enough to write off Golden State as an NBA title contender, according to ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry. 

"I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd be all over this bet," Goldsberry wrote in a Friday column, referring to the Warriors opening the season as +1,400 championship favorites according to Caesar's Palace. "Why? Call me crazy, but if Klay Thompson returns to action by March or April, and the Warriors are in the playoffs, they're terrifying."

Placing them in his third tier of championship contenders, Goldsberry noted that the Warriors' experience could give them an edge over other title contenders. He also proposed that sign-and-trade acquisition D'Angelo Russell could "take another leap" under head coach Steve Kerr. Russell, who was an All-Star last season, doesn't have the same defensive upside as Thompson, but gives Golden State another credible scoring threat while one half of the Splash Brothers sits on the sidelines. 

[RELATED: Why Mychal Thompson has MVP expectations for Steph]

That defensive drop-off is what concerns Goldsberry the most, especially with Thompson set to miss so much of the season while Durant and Andre Iguodala no longer are playing in the Bay. The Warriors finished outside of the top 10 in defensive rating in each of the last two seasons despite the presence of all three players on the roster. As NBC Sports Bay Area's Grant Liffmann observed earlier this week, those absences leave the Warriors with a lot of question marks on the defensive end of the court. 

The best-case scenarios for the Warriors next season involve a lot of "ifs." If Russell can effectively fill in for Thompson and if Thompson can return healthy and if the Warriors figure out their defense, then Golden State could be a force in the postseason. The Warriors will have 82 games to figure it all out, but they are still a team few would want to face if and when they do.