NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Durant foreshadows own free agency? — Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City All-Star and 2014 MVP whose 2014-15 season largely was lost to foot injuries, showed up in Orlando on Saturday to catch the Thunder’s entry in that city’s Pro Summer League. He took the time to talk with reporters about his offseason, his rehab after two surgeries on his right foot and his thoughts on OKC and its ambitions for the coming season. But a lot of folks will zero in on his comments about LaMarcus Aldridge agreeing to a deal with San Antonio – Aldridge was the big free-agent catch of 2015, with Durant slated for that role next summer –and project 12 months out. Here are pertinent quotes, as provided by our own Fran Blinebury:
“You could kinda tell once this whole thing started that he was trying to go somewhere else,” Durant said. “In those decisions, man, you got to respect the guy for making the decision that was right for him. I know a lot of fans are probably upset in Portland at the decision. But at this point in your life and your career you’ve got to focus on you. I said this last year when Mr. (LeBron) James made his decision, it’s pretty cool to see a guy really do what he wants to do and not worry about what everybody else thinks.
Of course, it will be his decision next summer, when Durant becomes a free agent that will put him in the center of the storm.
“I haven’t thought about it, though I hear it all the time,” he said. “I’m really just focusing on rehab. I can’t get there unless I take care of today. That’s how I look at it. Even though I hear from every side thinking past to next summer. But I’m not even trying to focus on that. I’m excited about our team, our new coaches and just trying to get back right.
There is lots more in there, though, don’t hesitate to click on through for the no-longer-so-Thin Man’s thoughts on the Western Conference and his eagerness to get going again in games that matter.
No. 2: Spurs can thank “LaTim” for LaMarcus — Following in the massive footsteps of Tim Duncan as the San Antonio Spurs’ dominant and beloved big man didn’t scare off Aldridge. One reason: He won’t be “following” right away, instead playing alongside the Hall of Famer-to-be. An orderly transition was one of the things, in fact, that sold the four-time Portland All-Star on his stunning team-change back to his native Texas. That’s how veteran columnist Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News sees it, at least, and he wrote about that and what looks to be the Spurs’ ability to retool without rebuilding:
That is why Saturday’s news felt as if the Spurs had won a sixth title. They hit the reset button. With only one losing season since 1989, the Spurs reached a remarkable and unparalleled position for a franchise that has been successful for so long. The downturn still remains so far in the future that there is no timeline for it.
But this doesn’t happen if Duncan, once a free agent himself, had chosen Orlando in 2000. This doesn’t happen if Duncan had refused to change his role years later, or opted for the couch instead of taekwondo, or wasn’t as effective at age 39.
This also doesn’t happen now, this month, if Duncan wanted his rightful salary.
Duncan instead remained who he has been. Not coincidentally, that’s the kind of person Aldridge said he grew up idolizing.
[Coach Gregg] Popovich reportedly sold as much to Aldridge during their Friday meal. From ESPN’s Marc Stein in a tweet that same day: “Sources say pitch LaMarcus Aldridge got from Pop today about playing with Duncan AND taking over when Timmy’s gone resonated strongly.”
There are several layers to this, and one is basketball. Duncan makes everyone better, and he will make Aldridge better next season, too.
Duncan’s influence on Aldridge will also be felt in the locker room. Duncan can be quiet, and Aldridge took that further in Portland. Reports suggest he could be distant and insecure.
Duncan, always a nurturing leader, can fix that. His nature has always set a tone among teammates. He expects a certain professional behavior, and he gets it. Aldridge should be drawn to this.
Meanwhile, a veteran NBA personnel man provided the Express-News with an informal scouting report on Aldridge in San Antonio. Here’s a snippet:
On Aldridge’s reliance on the outside shot:
“When you have guys who are so good at something, you have to play to your strengths. Like Tim with the elbow jump shot, or Dirk [Nowitzki] with the pick and pop — that’s a shot you want them to take. That might go against what the new NBA trends are. But sometimes those concepts…it’s easier to find guys who get inside for layups or shoot 3s. It’s not easy, but it’s easier than to find a go-to, game-changer offensively who has a gift for putting the ball in the hole regardless of what defense you throw at them. Like Tony [Parker]; [as an opponent] you can say we’ll live with his jump shot, but if he’s making them he can kill you. (Aldridge) gives them more offensive firepower.
“Obviously his bread and butter is the jump shot. Being an offensive guy, I think if you get a good look in our league…do you wish it was a 3? Yes. Do you wish it was a layup? Yes. But if it’s an open look you know your guy can make, those are good, quality shots. I know Houston takes it to an extreme (with avoiding mid-range shots). But it’s easier to find a guy like Corey Brewer than it is a James Harden. So I think the Spurs got an offensive game-changer, without a doubt. They’re going to mesh his strengths to what the team is, which is one of the best passing teams in the league. Now you have to make a decision when him and Tim are on the floor, him and Boris [Diaw]. Those combinations are going to be lethal.”
No. 3: Tale of two centers, Pt. I (Jordan) — One tent-pole NBA center switches teams, his new team celebrates, his old team scrambles. Another tent-pole NBA center switches teams, his old team celebrates, his new team … shrugs? That was the dynamic in play this weekend involving DeAndre Jordan and Roy Hibbert. First, we’ll look at Jordan through the eyes of the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers, the teams that signed and lost him, respectively. Beat man Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News wrote about Jordan and his big-man game that should continue to blossom with the Mavericks:
When he was a raw NBA rookie, his one season at Texas A&M still a fresh memory, DeAndre Jordan was an unknown commodity.
Scouts wondered if he really had NBA skills beyond simply being 6-11 and 250 pounds.
Coaches wondered if he had the want-to.
Fans and critics wondered if he was another Erick Dampier.
As a rookie, Jordan had trouble getting on the court. He played behind Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was looking very much like the second-round draft pick (35th overall) that he was.
He was an offensively challenged, can’t-shoot-free-throws project on a team that went 19-63.
This is one of the NBA’s best examples of why it’s dangerous to draw knee-jerk conclusions about young players.
Six years after the conclusion of that first season, Jordan is joining the Mavericks as the major piece of the organization’s new, young core, an $80-million cornerstone who qualifies as the most lucrative free-agent signee in the team’s history.
“We see him as the future of the franchise,” owner Mark Cuban said.
The Mavericks believe Jordan, who turns 27 on July 21, has untapped potential on the offensive end of the court. His defense and rebounding are not open to debate. He’s as good as anybody in the league in those areas.
Is his offense ready to take off, too?
Coach Rick Carlisle and Cuban believe it will. And that makes sense from the Mavericks’ perspective.
The league is going toward interchangeable players who can guard multiple positions. One area that is in decline is low-post scoring. When nobody else is doing it, that’s when Cuban and Co. try to pounce on an asset that makes the Mavericks unique.
Only Houston, with Dwight Howard, and perhaps Memphis with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, have what would be considered strong offensive forces in the paint. San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge, who agreed to terms with the Spurs on Saturday, and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, are more hybrid big men that can take their game outside the paint.
The Clippers, meanwhile, are hopeful they can find someone – uh, JaVale McGee? – to beef up a front line that suddenly looks awfully nekkid without Jordan. Until they do, and perhaps for some time after, folks might want to blame somebody for this blow to the Clippers’ title dreams. Jeff Miller of the Orange County Register pointed directly at point guard Chris Paul:
Never in his 10-year NBA career – not even in the disastrous deciding moments of Game 5 against Oklahoma City in 2014, not even in horrifically blowing Game 6 and then the series to Houston in May – has Paul looked as bad as he does right now.
One of the most gifted point guards in the league just had his worst turnover as a pro.
Jordan is officially leaving the Clippers for Dallas as a free agent, and, by all indications, the player who has led the NBA in assists per game the past two seasons, assisted mightily in Jordan’s franchise-stunting decision.
No one is saying that on the record, of course, but no one really has to say it on the record. The record speaks for itself.
Jordan is known to revere Doc Rivers and cherish his relationship with Blake Griffin. The Clippers were a team famously building toward something bigger, with an owner puffing money and optimism into a franchise that traditionally has had neither.
It is common knowledge that Paul and Jordan didn’t always get along, that Paul’s on-court edginess and demeanor agitated Jordan. Paul also reportedly thought Jordan was entirely too lax in addressing his free-throw deficiencies.
“Things aren’t good there,” a source told Fox Sports in May, referring to the Paul-Jordan dynamic. “(Jordan) might leave,” the source also was quoted as saying…
The concept of players struggling to coexist is only as old as the games themselves. Paul is hardly the first star to alienate a teammate, Kobe Bryant being another convenient example of someone who has left those around him begging for less.
Funny, though, how a teammate like Bryant, one who has won five championships, might be tolerated a little easier than a teammate like Paul, who never has advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
No. 4: Tale of two centers, Pt. II (Hibbert) — There was a different, nearly opposite vibe swirling about Hibbert’s trade – for a future second-round pick — from the Pacers to the Lakers. Back home in Indiana, the move was celebrated as a huge step forward in basketball boss Larry Bird‘s vision to have the Pacers playing faster; now both Hibbert and veteran power forward David West (who opted out) both are gone. Shedding Hibbert’s $15.5 million salary for the coming season, along with what might have become a brooding, distracting situation if the two-time All-Star wound up anchored to the bench, also suggested a going-away party without an invitation for the honored guest. As for Hibbert’s impact on the Lakers, no one was touting his arrival as the latest entry in the franchise’s famous timeline of great centers (Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal). First, here’s Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, rather harshly, on the Pacers’ side of this swap:
From something ugly, something beautiful is growing. You know the ugly. Paul George‘s gruesome broken leg, nearly a year ago, which triggered the Indiana Pacers’ slide out of the 2015 NBA playoffs, which led to …
Something beautiful growing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Pacers have done so much right, and gotten a little luck as well, and the result is pretty much every single thing falling their way since George fell so horribly, horribly wrong.
The departure of fraudulent center Roy Hibbert is the latest, greatest thing to happen to this team, the cherry on top of a sundae that will see the Pacers contend not just for a playoff spot next season, but for a top-four seed that would give them homecourt advantage in the postseason.
Hibbert is going to the Lakers, which takes his $15.5 million off Indiana’s books. What will the Pacers get for Hibbert, and what will they do with the leftover money? As of this writing I don’t know, and I don’t care. Get a backup power forward, a third-string guard, a lump of used ankle tape. Whatever.
Hibbert leaving is addition by subtraction, only it’s better than that. It’s multiplication by subtraction. Hibbert wasn’t going to play much this season, he wasn’t going to be happy about it, and he was going to prevent the Pacers from replacing his salary with one or — more likely — two or three players who can fill the team’s depth. A veteran point guard off the bench. Another power forward to spell George.
This, meanwhile, was the lukewarm coverage generated from the Los Angeles side, as chronicled by L.A. Times beat writer Mike Bresnahan:
They didn’t miss out only on Aldridge. They also met with DeAndre Jordan, who chose Dallas, and Greg Monroe, who curiously picked Milwaukee over the Lakers.
The Lakers netted Hibbert for a future second-round draft pick, giving them a post player with legitimate NBA experience, though he was coming off a poor season.
Hibbert, 28, is a good shot-blocker but an erratic scorer and a below-average rebounder for being 7 feet 2. His days in Indiana were numbered when team President Larry Bird all but guaranteed he would play a lesser role next season.
Hibbert has enjoyed some solid seasons, making the Eastern Conference All-Star team in 2014 and 2012. He had one of the more unique lines in recent years, compiling 10 points, 11 rebounds and 11 blocked shots for a triple-double against New Orleans in 2012.
He is not an accurate shooter from the field outside and made only 44.6% of his attempts last season, very low for a center, while averaging 10.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks.
Hibbert will be in the last season of his contract and eligible for free agency in a year. He joins a threadbare Lakers frontcourt that had Robert Sacre and Tarik Black as the only post players with NBA experience.
The addition of Hibbert, who has a trade kicker that increases his actual cap number to $17.8 million, leaves the Lakers with less than $5 million to spend on a dwindling free-agent market.
It’s hard to detract the focus from an unsettling pattern, the 16-time NBA champions unable to sign anybody of worth to upgrade their team in recent off-seasons.
No. 5: Report: Raptors pick up Biyombo — The Toronto Raptors lost stalwart big man Amir Johnson this summer to the Atlantic Division rival Boston Celtics. But even without that lost, they’ve been a little thin up front over the last few seasons and have reportedly found some help in the form of former lottery pick Bismack Biyombo. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more:
The journey has been little short of amazing — the Democratic Republic of Congo to Yemen to Spain to the United States Pacific northwest for a one-night coming out party.
Then Sacramento for less than 24 hours, to Charlotte to the unemployment line and now Bismack Biyombo finds himself in Toronto with another chance to prove his NBA worth.
The six-foot-nine Biyombo, cut adrift by the Charlotte Hornets last month because they feared he had reached his potential, will join the Raptors as a placeholder backup centre, a defensive presence and offensive nightmare who gives Toronto a shot-blocking rim-protecting presence to try to nurture.
Biyombo has agreed to terms on a two-year deal worth about $6 million (U.S.), a relatively low-cost, low-risk backup for Jonas Valanciunas.
According to league sources, Biyombo’s signing will have no impact on Toronto’s ability to sign other free agents with salary cap room. Biyombo’s deal will fit into what is known as the “mini-mid level” cap exception. Toronto still has something in the neighbourhood of $8 million to spend on a much-needed power forward and a backup point guard.
But in Biyombo, general manager Masai Ujiri has plugged one small hole in the roster, providing coach Dwane Casey with a solid defender who has exponentially more athleticism and potential than either Amir Johnson or Chuck Hayes, who manned that position a year ago.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Either there is a need in Cleveland for former Indiana forward David West or there isn’t, depending on which analysis — this one or that one — you prefer. … Here is a breakdown of the teams that still have salary-cap space to use on the players left in NBA free agency. … The Washington Wizards have gone about their offseason maneuvers with one eye on the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. … Might Lou Williams be a sign-and-trade possibility for the Miami Heat? … No less an authority than Patrick Ewing says Charlotte’s lottery pick Frank Kaminsky has gone from a “deer in the headlights” to potentially a deer to fear – for the Hornets, of course. … Aldridge is gone and now so is Portland assistant coach Kim Hughes for rankling the Blazers organization with some off-hand remarks. … Whether it says “Welcome!” or not, the New York Knicks got the floor mat treatment from the NBA’s free-agent A-listers, according to the New York Post.