Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving team up for uncertain future in Brooklyn

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USA Today Sports

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving team up for uncertain future in Brooklyn

That sound you hear is Knicks fans throwing up all over themselves.
 
Not only did Kevin Durant spurn the New York Knicks in free agency, but he decided to join their neighbors across the river in Brooklyn. And he took Kyrie Irving with him. Oh, and New York trading for known KD pal DeAndre Jordan last year to get the inside track on signing the two-time Finals MVP? That didn’t seem to matter, either; Jordan’s going to Brooklyn, too.

According to reports, Durant will be signing a four-year, $161 million deal and Irving will ink a four-year, $141 million contract of his own. Jordan, meanwhile, will be signed to the room exception at about $10 million over two years.
 
This is a stunning recovery by the Brooklyn Nets after finishing with the NBA’s worst record as recently as the 2016-17 season. Must be nice to be in the NBA’s largest market.
 
We can talk all day about the appealing culture that general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson incubated over the last three years. That certainly factored into Durant and Kyrie’s decision. But let’s be real: There’s little chance that a 42-40 team lands Durant and Irving if it hailed from Memphis.
  
Now, let’s get to the ironic part: Two of the best players in the league and one of the best free-agent hauls in years might not have much impact on the 2019-20 season. The more impactful transaction would have been if Irving re-joined LeBron James alongside Anthony Davis in L.A., but by joining the Nets, it’s not clear whether Irving is any closer to a championship in Brooklyn than he would be in Boston next season. Instead, for the second time in three summers, Irving has abruptly bolted from a winning situation. With a healthy Durant in 2020-21, the Nets figure to be a championship contender, but a lot can change in Irving’s world. It was only nine months ago that Irving told a crowd of Celtics season ticket holder that he wanted to be in Boston long term.
 
“I shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organization and everyone else in Boston, if you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing next year,” Irving proclaimed in October.
 
But after numerous reports of locker room infighting and turmoil, Irving obviously changed his thinking. Now, he’ll try to find what he seeks in Brooklyn. Maybe he just wanted to play basketball with his friends in Durant and Jordan. That’s a perfectly valid reason to switch jobs, no matter the workplace. Teaming up with buddies would be a crystallization of the player empowerment era that began with the Miami big three in 2010.
 
When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in Miami, the Heat won two championships in four tries. This Brooklyn trio is a far cry from the Heatles. The LeBron of the group, Durant, is rehabbing a torn Achilles. Prime Wade was a better all-around player and a more established leader than Irving. Jordan is a fine role player, but Bosh averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds before taking his talents to South Beach.
 
Yes, Brooklyn should be doing a victory lap. They just got Durant and Irving! But there are reasons to feel a little nervous about Irving being one of the faces of your franchise. With Irving’s defensive shortcomings, you better have an elite defender like Al Horford to man the back line. When Irving and Horford played together in Boston, the Celtics outscored opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions, according to pbpstats.com. But with Irving playing without Horford, that edge fell to only plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions, with both sides of the ball being less powerful. 
 
Jordan, who turns 31 years old in late July, is not that elite defensive presence anymore. In Dallas last season, he was routinely out of position and struggled to keep Dallas afloat defensively. Between stints in Dallas and New York, Jordan finished 18th among centers in defensive real plus-minus. 

There’s a very real chance that Brooklyn never contends for a title. It all hinges on Durant’s recovery from an Achilles tear, which has ended careers before. Irving will be turning 29 years old by the time Durant is likely to be ready in 2020-21. Say it takes Durant another full season to establish himself as an MVP-caliber player. In that scenario, Irving will be 30 years old and Durant will be 33 by the time the 2022 playoffs begin. 
 
Maybe Durant returns to elite status right away, like Dominique Wilkins did. That’s one data point. So is Isiah Thomas, who retired at the age of 32. Kobe Bryant was a shell of himself after his tear at the age of 34. Though Durant at 30 years old is no spring chicken, the four-time scoring champ has to hope his relative youth leads to a better outcome than Bryant.
 
As I reported earlier this year with Cousins, the biggest factor in Achilles rehabilitation is weight loss. That shouldn’t be a huge factor with Durant considering he’s already so slender. There’s not much weight to lose on that frame. But as SNY’s Ian Begley noted recently, the Nets have a strong performance and medical staff, which helped Caris LaVert miraculously return to the floor this season after a gruesome ankle injury. Durant should be in good hands.
 
Durant and Irving spent much of last season downplaying any talk of them joining up in New York, but Sunday’s news lends credence to reporter questions and informed speculation from the media. Frustration on Durant’s end reached a boiling point in February when he went on an impromptu media strike ahead of his free agency. Durant then singled out The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss in a postgame monologue after Strauss had reported that belief among league insiders saw Durant leaving to New York as a free agent.

We can’t know how this plays out if Durant doesn’t tear his Achilles. According to an ESPN report, the Knicks weren’t prepared to offer a max contract to a player coming off an Achilles tear. Instead, Durant chooses the Nets. 

Humans are free to change their mind and that’s precisely why reporters ask these questions. It was always fair to question Irving’s intentions especially after his October proclamation. An annoyed Irving told Boston reporters to “ask me on July 1” about his free agency but to illustrate how quickly this happened, Irving didn’t even wait until July before word came out he was committed to leaving Boston. Irving changed his mind. He won’t be the first, and won’t be the last. Irving and Durant’s partnership will only fuel more media inquiry and speculation down the line. 
 
Even with Sunday’s bombshell news, Brooklyn doesn’t necessarily have a clearer picture going forward. But with the superstar talent on board, the horizon still looks brighter, for now. Irving is committed for the time being. That can change quickly. Just ask Boston and Cleveland.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

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NBC Sports

Kings, Trail Blazers make sideways move in Trevor Ariza trade

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers agreed to trade Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver, the 2024 second-round pick and the 2025 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

For Portland, Trevor Ariza isn’t impactful enough for this to be seen as more than a cost-cutting move. Ariza, at 34 years old, has struggled to find the same level of play that made him a key player on the Houston Rockets that took the Golden State Warriors to seven games in 2018.

Ariza has bounced around the league in his twilight years. In the last two seasons, Phoenix, Washington, Sacramento and now Portland have hoped he can help lead a middling team to the playoffs, but none so far have had much luck in that department. In his prime, Ariza represented the 3-and-D standard. But his mobility isn’t what it once was, leaving him as best suited for a bench role.

In Portland, he’ll be thrusted into the starting lineup by default, with Rodney Hood (Achilles) out for the season and Bazemore going to SacTown. With only a $1.8 million of $12.8 million guaranteed for next season, the Blazers can let Ariza go this summer for a small price if they’d like to change direction. The cost savings will be substantial for a 18-25 team with the largest tax bill in the NBA; The Blazers will slice their luxury tax bill to $7 million and save $12.5 million in salary overall. 

In basketball terms, this is mostly a sideways move for both sides. Neither Bazemore nor Ariza ranked higher than seventh in minutes per game on their respective teams. Ariza had found a larger role for the Kings recently, but inconsistent production made him expendable from the Kings’ perspective. 

The Blazers were wise to cut back their 2019-20 spending, given that their playoff chances have been dwindling. FiveThirtyEight.com’s latest projection has them at a 26% chance of making the postseason in the West. Most execs I’ve spoken to expected Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside’s expiring deals to be flipped before the deadline. One down, another to go?

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

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NBC Sports

Joel Embiid's absence can be a blessing in disguise for Sixers

No team wants to see its star player get hurt. But the best teams turn adversity into opportunity. That’s the hope for the Philadelphia 76ers right now.

Star center Joel Embiid has been sidelined for the past 10 days recovering from hand surgery to repair his torn ligament in his left hand and will be reevaluated at a further date. It’s the latest blow to a reloaded Sixers team seeking redemption after losing in heartbreaking fashion to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors at the last second in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Just about every NBA champion dealt with what the 26-16 Sixers are facing right now. When the Raptors outlined an aggressive load management program for Kawhi Leonard last season that planted him on the bench on back-to-backs, they used that absence as an opening to launch Pascal Siakam, who had been, at that point, merely a role player.

The loss of Leonard was Siakam’s gain. In the 21 games that Siakam played without Leonard last season, he flourished with the extra oxygen on offense, averaging 19.1 points on 55 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Siakam’s stat line in the Finals against Golden State? An eerily similar 19.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Leonard missing 22 games in the regular season may have derailed other teams, but the Raptors used it as a growth opportunity for the surrounding talent. Would they have known they could count on Siakam on the biggest stage if it weren’t for Leonard’s time on the bench? Perhaps, but the regular season certainly accelerated Siakam’s basketball glow-up.

The Raptors aren’t the only champion that turned an injury into a positive. The Miami Heat didn’t embrace their title-winning pace-and-space and small-ball style until they lost Chris Bosh for weeks in the 2011-12 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors weren’t the juggernaut Golden State Warriors until David Lee’s hamstring injury opened the gates for Draymond Green. For years, Gregg Popovich deliberately sidelined his stars to facilitate the growth of the supporting cast. Kawhi Leonard himself is a shining example of what strategic resting and moving a future Hall of Famer (Manu Ginobili) to the bench can yield.

The Sixers have the same chance for growth with Embiid sidelined. There are plenty of silver linings with Embiid’s injury. For one, as nauseating as it looked, the injury is not considered a long-term issue. To quote Embiid himself in a heartfelt letter on The Players’ Tribune, “It’s just a finger. It’s nothing. Compared to what I’ve been through. It’s nothing, man.” It’s also not another leg-related injury, which is good news on its own, but it also allows him in the meantime to work on his conditioning.

But the real silver lining is about the seeds the team can plant now. Here are three ways the Sixers can grow from Embiid’s absence and keep their championship hopes alive:

1. Make Ben Simmons a crunch-time scorer

Fresh off of an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, Josh Richardson was a supernova down the stretch against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 17 points of Philly’s 26 points in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Sixers came up short while Simmons and Al Horford were held scoreless in the final frame.

In Wednesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, it was Tobias Harris’ turn to cook, outscoring the Nets 9-2 over the final three minutes of the game. But Simmons was held scoreless yet again in the fourth quarter, missing both of his free throws early in the quarter and setting up teammates the rest of the way. 

These fourth quarters, even without Embiid, are emblematic of a lingering related issue: Simmons’ tendency to fade in the final frame. In his last three fourth quarters, Simmons has zero points on 0-for-4 shooting and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. This season, here is Simmons’ usage rate (percentage of team possessions used by a player via shot attempt, free throw attempt or turnover) by quarter:

Simmons’ Usage Rate by Quarter in 2019-20
 
First quarter:
21.4 percent
Second quarter: 20.5 percent
Third quarter: 20.5 percent
Fourth quarter: 15.4 percent

That’s not ideal for an All-Star who functions as the team’s primary ball-handler. Simmons’ usage rate in clutch situations -- where the score is within five in the final five minutes -- shrinks to 14.4 percent compared to Embiid’s 38.6 percent, Tobias Harris’ 20.8 percent and Richardson’s 17.6 percent, per NBA tracking.

Simmons’ performance down the stretch was a big talking point in the playoffs last year and rightfully so. In 18 minutes of clutch situations in the playoffs, Simmons was 0-for-2 from the floor with three assists and no points. He also didn’t have any turnovers and helped lock up opponents on the defensive end. The Sixers as a team actually outscored the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors by a score of 43-33 in clutch situations in the playoffs, all with Simmons on the floor.

But the Sixers’ advantage in those minutes could certainly be wider if Simmons shows the same attack mentality as he does earlier in the game. Sure, Simmons needs to conserve energy for the defensive end where he becomes the Sixers’ uber-stopper, but there are plenty of opportunities for Simmons to attack the rim in pressure moments where he instead passes out or dribbles away from the paint.

Simmons has the physical tools and requisite skills to be a crunch-time weapon. At the same age as Simmons is now, a 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo took eight clutch shots for the Bucks in their lone 2018 playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Seven of them were inside two feet, per NBA.com shot tracking. Simmons can do the same. For those that doubt his abilities to take over games down the stretch, now is the time -- without Embiid and Jimmy Butler soaking up late-game touches -- to prove them wrong. Simmons can use this opportunity to gain some confidence and establish a base with which to work off of in the playoffs.

2. Make Al Horford a focal point of the offense

You could make the argument that as long as Embiid is out there, the Philadelphia 76ers are a full-throttled title contender. The Sixers were plus-143 with Embiid on the court last postseason, third-highest of any player last postseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they were minus-107 with him off the floor.

A gap that wide is basically unheard of in NBA postseason history. 

Even the most top-heavy teams aren’t that dependent on one player. Remember the LeBron James-led 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers squad that suffered injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but still made it to the Finals? Here was the scoreboard with LeBron on the bench that postseason: Cavs 260, Opponents 260. An even score. Again, the Sixers were outscored by 107 points with Embiid riding the pine last postseason.

You need stars to win championships. But they can’t play every minute. The Sixers learned that the hard way last year, crumbling into pieces with Embiid going to the bench.

The Horford acquisition was supposed to change all that. And so far, so good. Embiid yet again has the best plus-minus on the team, registering a plus-133 in his minutes this season. But instead of bleeding points to the other team in Embiid-less minutes, the Sixers have stayed afloat, even narrowly outscoring opponents by seven points on the whole this season.

That might not seem worth celebrating, but that’s a remarkable achievement for the Sixers considering how much they’ve struggled to keep up without Embiid on the floor over the years. 

Here’s how the Sixers fare depending on Embiid’s presence since 2016-17:

Sixers with Embiid on and off court (Data: NBA)

2019-20: plus-133 on, plus-7 off
2018-19: plus-373 on, minus-152 off
2017-18: plus-486 on, minus-117 off
2016-17: plus-67 on, minus-534 off

Horford has seen better seasons, but that data alone should be seen as a huge win for Sixers GM Elton Brand and coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have at least stayed competitive without Embiid, which isn’t something they could have said in years past. Embiid’s backups last season were virtually unplayable in the postseason. Greg Monroe, Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson were fixtures of the Sixers’ playoff rotation; only Bolden has played in the NBA this season and he has logged five minutes total.

The Sixers should approach this section of the season as solidifying their Embiid-less system to the point that they can tread water in the postseason. Brown has opted to keep Simmons and Horford paired together almost exclusively this season, a decision that should pay dividends come playoff time. You often hear that a team will only go as far its superstar will take them. But in the Sixers’ case, the opposite is true: They will only go as far as the non-Embiid minutes will take them.

3. Give Matisse Thybulle all the minutes he can handle

My two sleepers in the NBA draft were 23-year-old Brandon Clarke and 22-year-old Matisse Thybulle. These were two prospects whose stats and skills jumped off the screen at the college level, but they fell in the draft because, well, they weren’t teenagers. By draft standards, they were ancient.

And here we are. Clarke has been sensational for the surging Memphis Grizzlies and a perfect fit next to fellow rookie Ja Morant. And Thybulle? He’s ready. Yes, he’s a rookie and typically rookies don’t contribute at a high-level to championship contenders. But Thybulle is turning 23 years old in early March. The guy was born within four months of Jamal Murray, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo. He’s not your typical rook.

Thybulle is a special, special talent. He’s everywhere defensively. Right now, he’s averaging 3.7 steals per 100 possessions and 2.2 blocks per 100 possessions while playing 18.3 minutes per game. Here’s a list of players, via Basketball Reference, who have achieved those block and steal rates while averaging at least 15 minutes per game in a season: Michael Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Gerald Wallace and Thybulle.

I loved seeing Brown insert him into the starting lineup on Wednesday night even though he had struggled with his shot since his knee injury. Thybulle has offensive limitations, but he’s a fast-break machine and a perfect co-pilot next to Simmons, who is at his best when he’s driving in the open court. Thybulle gives him the keys to ignition.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.