Paul George gets nifty endorsement from OKC deserter

    When Paul George, left, asked around about OKC, he got a ringing endorsement from Thunder defector Kevin Durant. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
    BY LEE JENKINS

    SI.com

    July 11, 2017

    WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — The Conejo Valley lunch crowd was confronted by an alarming image Monday afternoon on the 3100 block of Willow Lane: Paul George lying face down on the floor of a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, garage doors open to the street, cursing under the weight of six 20-pound metal chains draped across his back. This is where George has spent the past three months, at ProActive Sports Performance in Westlake Village, pushing 800-pound monster-truck tires alongside linebackers such as the Packers’ Clay Matthews and running backs like the Bucs’ Doug Martin. On Road Trip Fridays, George and his new NFL pals charge up 35-degree inclines on 200-yard sand dunes north of Malibu.

    No one has figured more prominently in the NBA’s manic off-season than George—traded by the Pacers, rumored to the Cavs, ticketed to the Celtics, fated for the Lakers, acquired by the Thunder—yet no one has been less visible, training six days a week with Ryan Capretta at ProActive and recovering at his home in aptly named Hidden Hills. George will finally extricate himself from the chains, which he uses for resistance during pushups, and board a private plane Tuesday morning at Van Nuys Airport that was dispatched by Thunder owner Clay Bennett. He cannot fathom the outpouring that awaits him when he touches down in Oklahoma City. “I’ve heard there might be people, like, at the airport,” he says.

    George has no relationship with Russell Westbrook beyond pregame pleasantries. He describes Sam Presti as one might depict a character in a spy novel. All he has ever seen of his new home is the Skirvin Hilton Hotel and Chesapeake Energy Arena. But in the 11 days since George was sent from Indiana to Oklahoma City, he has done his research, asking former Thunder players what he can expect in one of the league’s smallest but staunchest markets. One notable source was particularly insightful.

    “KD was like, ‘That place will blow you away,’” George says. “He told me, ‘They can offer what other teams can’t in terms of the people and the preparation and the facility, down to the chefs and the meals.’ He was pretty high on them. He thought it was a first-class organization in every way.” The Thunder, who essentially traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for a yearlong free-agent pitch session with George, will take any recruiter they can get—even if it’s the guy who left, sweet-talking his replacement.

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    Green called Durant from parking lot after Game 7

    Draymond Green might have sealed Kevin Durant going to the Warriors with a cell phone call from the parking lot. (AP photo/Rick Bowmer)
    BY ZACH LOWE

    ESPN Senior Writer

    June 8, 2017

    Draymond Green sat along the sidelines this week at Quicken Loans Arena and pointed his right index finger at the spot where it happened -- where everything about the 2016 NBA Finals, and maybe about the next decade of NBA history, changed in a blur of angry limbs.

    "That play?" Green said in a chat with ESPN.com, his voice rising. "I don't regret it. Like, I just don't. Some would say maybe I'm wrong for not regretting it. I don't live my life with regrets. I move on. It was never like, 'Oh man, I cost these guys a championship. Now, do I believe in my heart that I did cost us? Yeah, I do. Absolutely. But I still don't regret that play."

    That play, of course, was Green swiping at LeBron James' groin as the world's best player stepped over him in an act Green and his team viewed as an intentional, emasculating taunt. The resulting flagrant foul mandated Green be suspended from Game 5 in Oakland. The Warriors were up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. They never won again.

    It is an act with almost no parallel in sports history -- a flash of anger that upended a series on the precipice. To a man, the Warriors are sure they would have clinched the title in Game 5 at home had Green been available. Whether they are right is impossible to know, and not all that important. That they believe it is what matters. If they believe that, then they also believe Green's temper -- his accumulation of needless and violent on-court incidents -- cost them a once-in-a-lifetime chance to repeat as champions in a record-setting 73-win season.

    That belief could tear a team apart. It would be natural for teammates to harbor bitterness toward Green. More trivial disputes ripped fissures in other teams that never healed. Green apologized, and the Warriors got past it, quickly. There were no further team meetings. Green did not have to pull any teammate aside and hash things out, he said. They rallied around Green, and accepted his mistake. Their bond grew stronger. Green learned to tread the line, and the Warriors are about to assume the throne again.

    It did not have to be that way.

    "Initially, we were upset," Shaun Livingston told ESPN.com. "Especially during that moment when we didn't know if he would be suspended. It was like, 'Come on, man. You have to be smarter.'"

    The ruling from the league office galvanized them, as did rumblings -- accurate, per sources -- that the Cavaliers lobbied for a two-game suspension. "I think there was empathy for him," Bob Myers, the team's GM, told ESPN.com this week. "The worst thing, the most painful thing you can do to a player, is take him out of a game."

    The Warriors list compassion as one of their core values, and they used it to digest what Green had done. "Draymond does so much for us," Bruce Fraser, an assistant coach, told ESPN.com. "You have to live with some of the emotional things he does that hurt you. He was remorseful. He spoke on it. And we have a compassionate group."

    "He apologized," Steve Kerr, the team's head coach, told ESPN.com. "S--- happens. I never had any doubt the players would get over it."

    Losing Games 6 and 7 helped. They had two more chances, with Green. They lost -- with Green. "I can see people thinking he cost us a championship, but it's not true," Livingston said. "We lost those games."

    Owning their collective defeat shifted the focus away from any individual act. "It helped that we credited our opponents," Myers said. "In every arena now, people yell the '3-1 lead' stuff at us, and our response is: 'They beat us. They earned it.' And that is the healthiest response."

    Did Green's performance in Game 7 -- 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting, 15 rebounds, 9 assists -- quash any lingering resentment?

    "Hell yeah," Kerr said.

    Everyone understands Green's foundational importance to the team's identity -- to the very shape they form on the court. There is no impenetrable switching defense without Green, no revolutionary Death Lineup. "We couldn't play the way we do without him," said Ron Adams, the team's defensive guru.

    The core players had no choice but to forgive and forget; most of them were under contract for the next season and beyond, and Green wasn't going anywhere. "What are you going to do, trade Draymond because you can't get over it?" Kerr asked. "You have two choices: accept what he does, and that it comes with the occasional outburst, or trade him for a player who isn't as competitive -- a player who won't get kicked out of a game, but also won't get you to Game 7 of the Finals."

    Myers was still curious. He held private exit meetings with every player, and he used them in part to see if there was any simmering discontent about the suspension.

    "Given human nature, I thought there might be," Myers said. "There wasn't."

    "It was important to answer that question for our franchise going forward," Myers told ESPN.com on a podcast in March. "And nobody blamed anyone for anything. How do you get over 3-1? That day got me over it. You can lose with the right people. It makes it tolerable, as much as it sucks to lose. You look around and say, 'You know what? I'll go back and fight this fight with you guys.'"

    Green has also gotten better at controlling his temper. He has only two technicals so far in the playoffs -- and zero flagrants. "We don't want to take that emotion away from him," Klay Thompson told ESPN.com "That is what makes him so great -- that dog in him. He has just learned to harness it."

    As nice as this all sounds, even Green recognizes things could have turned out differently had Kevin Durant chosen another team. With four stars, including two of the five best players in the league, the Warriors are guaranteed a realistic shot at the title every season. There would be other chances; Green did not blow their last one.

    "I look at it as we lost the Finals, but we ended up with KD," Green said. "That's a helluva consolation prize."

    Green was already working on that as he left Oracle Arena after that gutting Game 7 loss. Green sat in his car in the parking lot and called Myers, telling him he had to sign Durant. "It's on you," Green told Myers.

    Green hung up, stayed in the parking lot, and made another call -- to Durant. "That was my very next call," Green said. Two weeks later, Durant signed a maximum contract that put him in a Golden State uniform for at least one season, with several more seasons likely to come.

    "If we win the championship, I'm like 99 percent sure we don't get him," Green said. "There are silver linings to everything."

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    All-NBA teams are out, but what do they mean?

    LeBron James, James Harden and Paul George. (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
    BY KEVIN O'CONNOR

    The Ringer

    May 19, 2017

    Five takeaways from the All-NBA team announcement:

    What does this mean for the future of Gordon Hayward and Paul George in Utah and Indiana, respectively? What does this mean for James Harden’s MVP campaign? Who the hell voted LeBron onto the second team?!

    Money, it’s a gas — and the NBA hopes it will keep superstars home, dissuading them from bouncing in free agency and forming superteams. The designated player extension was created to enable certain players to sign five-year contracts worth 35 percent of the cap. This summer, the supermax figure is worth roughly $207 million over five years. One of the prerequisites for that special designation is being named to one of the three All-NBA teams in the season preceding the extension, meaning Thursday afternoon’s All-NBA reveal has significant implications for the league.

    Here are the three teams:

    All eyes were on Gordon Hayward and Paul George, both of whom will hit free agency over the next two summers. You’ll notice they’ve been omitted. So what does that mean? Here are five takeaways from the All-NBA rosters:

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    Gregg Popovich rant on Zaza is an all-timer

    BY SCOTT DAVIS

    Business Insider

    May 15, 2017

    San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich ripped Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia on Monday for a controversial foul that injured Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

    During the third quarter, Pachulia closed out on a Leonard shot attempt and appeared to put his foot under Leonard after the shot.

    Leonard, whose injured ankle kept him out of Game 6 and part of Game 5 of the Spurs' second-round series against the Houston Rockets, landed on Pachulia's foot and had to leave the game. The Warriors went on an 18-0 run, erasing most of a 23-point Spurs lead. The Warriors won the game 113-111, outscoring the Spurs by 25 points without Leonard for most of the second half.

    While it was unclear whether Pachulia's foot placement was intentional, Popovich said it was "a totally unnatural close-out" and listed past incidents he considers dirty plays by Pachulia:

    "A two-step, lead-with-your-foot close-out is not appropriate. It's dangerous. It's unsportsmanlike. It's just not what anybody does to anybody else.

    "And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action. You can go back and look at Dallas games where he got a flagrant two for elbowing Patty Mills. The play where he took Kawhi down and locked his arm in Dallas and could have broken his arm. Ask David West, his current teammate, how things went when Zaza was playing for Dallas and he and David got into it.

    "And then think about the history he's had and what that means to a team, what happened last night: a totally unnatural closeout that the league has outlawed years ago and pays great attention to it."

    Popovich then angrily broke down how Leonard's injury could affect the Spurs' title chances:

    "You wanna know if that lessens our chances or not? We're playing very possibly the best team in the league. We don't know what's gonna happen in the East. And 9.75 people out of 10 would figure the Warriors would beat the Spurs.

    "Well, we've had a pretty damn good season. We've played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we're getting better. We're up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State, and Kawhi goes down like that. And you wanna know if our chances are less? And you wanna know how we feel? That's how we feel."

    At the time of Popovich's media availability, Leonard was getting an MRI. Popovich said the Spurs expected Leonard to miss Game 2.

    As many people pointed out, Pachulia's so-called foot trick has been around the NBA for years. Former Spurs wing Bruce Bowen was perhaps the player most known to slide his foot under jump shooters, risking potential injury. The Spurs retired Bowen's number, leading some to say Popovich's rant was hypocritical.

    After Game 1, Leonard said he didn't think Pachulia was trying to intentionally hurt him. Pachulia also defended himself, saying big men often get called for many unintentional fouls.

    Popovich, however, brushed that aside.

    "I don't give a damn about intent," he said. "You still go to jail for manslaughter."

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    Good riddance to the Thunder-Rockets series

    The Thunder-Houston series was as ugly as the feud between Houston's Patrick Beverley and the Thunder's Russell Westbrook. (Photo by AP Images)

     

    BY CHRIS RYAN

    Executive Editor, The Ringer

    April 25, 2017

    The ink spilled on Russell Westbrook during this Thunder-Rockets series obscured how far apart these two teams were.

    Despite it being the rare early-playoffs matchup between MVP front-runners, this series brought out the worst in each team. I’m not sorry it’s over.

    There were 34 free throw attempts in Game 5’s fourth quarter alone. In the end, the Thunder played like they were blasting for minerals in a dark cave and only one guy brought a headlamp, while the Rockets ended the series relapsing into their dark-arts habit.

    We want to believe that playoff basketball is where the best of the sport is played, but the truth is dudes are out here trying to win no matter what. They lose faith in team concepts, record solo albums, take ill-advised shots or don’t shoot enough, look for cheap fouls, complain when they don’t get them, and try to drive the opposition nuts. James Harden’s bum ankle was like a time machine back to the days when his game seemed like an act of corruption.

    Diminished athletically, Harden seemingly looked for contact on every jumper and snapped his head on every drive. He was Moreyball on bad drugs.

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    When Russell Westbrook sits, his teammates fail miserably

    Russell Westbrook thoroughly expressed himself during and after the Thunder’s loss to Houston on Sunday. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)
    BY TIM BONTEMPS

    Washington Post

    April 23, 2017

    Russell Westbrook found himself at the podium in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday afternoon, a short time after he and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates fell to within one loss of going home for the summer after a 113-109 victory for the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.

    This NBA season has, in so many ways, been dominated by Westbrook, from his chase to average a triple-double for the year to his propping up the Thunder in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure before leading it back to the playoffs. Much more so, though, in Oklahoma City, where Westbrook’s status as the sole star remaining from the core that, five years ago, looked destined to win multiple championships, has made the guard the axis of the franchise’s existence.

    So when Westbrook, seated next to center Steven Adams, heard venerable local columnist Berry Tramel ask Adams — the best interview on the entire team — about the team’s struggles without the guard on the floor, Westbrook decided to take the question for himself.

    “I don’t want nobody to try and split us up,” Westbrook said, after advising Adams to “hold on.”

    “We [are] all one team,” he continued. “Regardless, if I go to the bench, or Steven’s on the floor, or if I’m off the floor, we in this together. Don’t split us up. Don’t try to make us go against each other, try to make it ‘Russell and the rest of the guys,’ or ‘Russell against Houston.’ I don’t want to hear that. We’re in this together. We play as a team, and that’s all that matters, and that’s that.”

    Westbrook then steamrolled further attempts at a follow up.

    “That’s fine,” Westbrook said. “Then say, ‘Russell, you ain’t played well at all.’ Or say, ‘Russell, the team hasn’t played well.’ Don’t say, ‘When Russell goes out, the team doesn’t play well.’ It don’t matter. We’re in this together.”

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    NBA playoffs: Postseason offers parity and purity

    Golden State's Stephen Curry reacts after making a 3-pointer against Portland in Game 2 of an opening-round series. (Photo by Ezra Shaw /Getty Images)
    BY JOE KNOWLES

    Chicago Tribune

    April 21, 2017

    Parity or purity? Good thing or bad thing? Call it what you like, but the NBA doesn't seem concerned by the fact that No. 1 or No. 2 seeds win an overwhelming majority of the league' titles.

    When someone points out that No. 1 or No. 2 seeds have won 10 of the last 12 championships — the other two were won by No. 3 seeds — the NBA counters by saying that the league has had six different champs in the past seven seasons.

    "Over a 82-game season, the best teams rise to the top," NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum said Thursday at the league's annual meeting with a group of sports editors.

    Based on that logic, it only figures that those teams prevail in the postseason. That's purity.

    "The top teams win," Tatum said, "but it's not the same top teams."

    And there's your parity.

    In the other major sports, top seeds aren't nearly as dominant in the playoffs, and bottom seeds even win an occasional championship. In the NFL, six wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl. Six wild-card teams have won the World Series, including three in a row from 2002-2004. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup as a No. 8 seed in 2012.

    A No. 8 seed has never won an NBA title and only one — the Knicks in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season — has ever reached the Finals.

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    Patrick Beverley annoys Thunder on defense AND offense

    BY DAN DEVINE

    Ball Don't Lie

    April 16, 2017

    Just as we all predicted, the star of the first game in the head-to-head matchup between two of the leading candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award was … Patrick Beverley?

    With all eyes on high-scoring, playmaking All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, it was the hard-as-nails Chicago-born guard who helped tilt the game. Beverley rebounded from a bone-crunching screen by Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams to ignite a monster third-quarter run that turned what had been a tight contest through two quarters into a blowout early in the fourth, as the Houston Rockets ran away with a 118-87 shellacking of the visiting Thunder to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series.

    After getting planted by a pick with just over 8 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, Beverley came back to drill a pair of 3-pointers off feeds from Harden to give the Rockets their first double-digit lead of the game and get the crowd at Toyota Center as fired up as they’d been all night:

    The second 3 set a new playoff career-high scoring mark for Beverley, who would finish with 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting (4-for-6 from 3-point land) to go with 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals in 26 minutes of work.

    “He’s been doing it since I’ve been here, five years,” Harden said when TNT’s David Aldridge asked him about his backcourt partner after the game. “He’s just this dog, man. He’s feisty. He’s going to play as hard as he can. That’s one of the reasons he’s in the position he’s in. Obviously, he knocked down some big shots, scored for us well, but he plays with a lot of energy, a lot of tenacity.”

    He also had a hand in limiting Westbrook, the league’s leading scorer during the regular season, to 22 points on 6-for-23 shooting (3-for-11 from deep) and helping Russ undercut his seven assists with nine turnovers.

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    The most insightful piece ever written on Sam Presti

    Thunder general manager Sam Presti alongside pending MVP Russell Westbrook.
    BY LEE JENKINS

    Sports Illustrated

    April 12, 2017

    Thirty miles northwest of Oracle Arena, on 411 acres of secluded woodlands in the San Geronimo Valley, the crowds sit in silence. They file into a two-story cedar building, place shoes in cubbyholes, pour cups of hot tea. They plop down on the octagonal oak floor in the Great Hall, using pillows as seat cushions, and gaze out floor-to-ceiling windows at turkeys roaming the grasslands, hawks circling the redwoods. Three instructors stand on a low platform, flanked by twin Buddha statues, and explain the first rule of a retreat to Spirit Rock: No talking. Not over lunch in the meadow, not on strolls across the hillside, and certainly not during meditation sessions in the Great Hall.

    For Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, extreme displays of self-discipline are not a problem. Three years ago a Thunder doctor warned Presti about the effects of carbohydrates, and he has not consumed so much as a crouton since. Two years ago Presti’s wife delivered their first child, and he vowed to write the boy a letter from every road trip. Approximately 70 notes and postcards already fill a safe deposit box in an Oklahoma City bank. During the organization’s annual cardiac stress test, players typically hop off the treadmill after eight or nine punishing minutes, when the administrator can take a clear ultrasound of their pumping heart. Presti stays on the belt for up to 14 minutes, speed and incline spiking every 30 seconds, his barrel chest heaving and burning. He wants the administrator to take the clearest ultrasound.

    He stretches himself, which is why he strode into Spirit Rock alongside 160 strangers on the morning of Sept. 3, his only companion a sack lunch from a nearby natural foods store in West Marin. Presti meditates, but he is no Phil Jackson, and the Labor Day weekend retreat spanned 18 silent hours over three days. The schedule sounded daunting enough, before taking into account the setting. Presti is among the most prominent NBA GMs—marked by the clear-framed specs, the crisply parted hair, the omnipresent Blackberry (he keeps several backups in case the company goes out of business)—but he still passes largely unnoticed outside of OKC. He could have chosen a mindfulness center anywhere. Yet when the time came to clear his head and draw his breath he traveled all the way to the Bay Area, across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge from Oakland, where he was predictably surrounded by Warriors T-shirts. As he glimpsed the bright yellow in the Great Hall, he laughed, though obviously not out loud.

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    Harden vs. Westbrook should settle MVP debate in payoffs

     

    BY BILL REITER

    CBSSports.com

    April 10, 2017

    Here’s a novel notion in settling once and for all the debate over James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook, this NBA season’s most-pressing question.

    Let those two decide.

    Let’s bend the rules and allow them fight to an answer, man to man, when their teams face one another next week in the start of the NBA playoffs — instead of limiting the award to regular season.

    All season, the prevailing narrative has been that the MVP comes down to those two players. And while I think LeBron has gotten short shrift , there is no arguing that Russ and the Beard have been marvelous and mesmerizing.

    For Westbrook, his argument is dominated by his history-making, triple-double season, in which he also joined Oscar Robertson  as the second player to average 10 or more points, rebounds and assists for an entire season. Westbrook’s 31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game put the Thunder, sans Kevin Durant, in the playoffs.

    And into the waiting arms of Harden and his 3-seed Houston Rockets.

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    Westbrook ends one board shy of season triple-double mark

    Wednesday in Memphis, Russell Westbrook finished one rebound shy of breaking Oscar Robertson's season record of 41 triple-doubles. (AP photo/Brandon Dill)
    BY TIM MCMAHON

    ESPN Staff Writer

    March 6, 2017

    MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Has there ever been a more spectacular, impressive, disappointing performance in NBA history?

    In a critical road game with significant playoff-seeding implications, Russell Westbrook put up 45 points on a sizzling shooting night, capping it with yet another clutch scoring flurry to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 103-100 victory Wednesday night over the Memphis Grizzlies. He dished out 10 assists, including one for a Doug McDermott 3-pointer that accounted for the only Thunder points that weren't by Westbrook in the heart-pounding final five minutes at FedEx Forum. He even had a season-high five steals.

    But he finished with only nine rebounds on a night when he could have broken the Big O's 55-year-old record for triple-doubles in a season? C'mon, man!

    "It'd be nice if he'd grab the ball!" Thunder coach Billy Donovan cracked, referring to a rebound that Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter stole from Westbrook with 1.2 seconds remaining, tipping it to Andrew Harrison for a 3 that pulled Memphis to within a point. "It bounced off his hand. It was right there in his lap, right?"

    Even Westbrook, a man not exactly known for yukking it up with the media, found humor in the focus being on a rebound he didn't get immediately after such a phenomenal individual performance that guaranteed that the Thunder would finish ahead of the Grizzlies, no worse than sixth in the Western Conference. He chuckled when asked about the rebound that got away, costing him what would have been his 42nd triple-double of the season, one more than Oscar Robertson recorded in 1961-62.

    "I mean, I think that people obviously come to see that," said Westbrook, who is now only six assists shy of guaranteeing that he'll join Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season. "It was a lot of people here to see that as well, but it happens like that. We've got a lot of games left. I'm happy we got the win. That was the most important part to me."

    Westbrook was in perfect position to get the rebound if Harrison missed. But it was a swish by the Grizzlies' fill-in starter at point guard, a 28.9 percent 3-point shooter this season. And Westbrook was well aware at the time what that rebound would have meant.

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    NBA scouts keeping a close eye on Sweet 16 field

    Purdue sophomore PF/C Caleb Swanigan (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    BY JONATHAN WASSERMAN

    NBA lead writer

    Bleacher Report

    March 21, 2017

    NBA scouts have plenty of reasons to continue watching the final 16 teams in the NCAA tournament.

    Seven prospects left in the field could potentially land in this year's lottery, including two players who'll be competing for No. 1 overall consideration.

    But every year, March Madness also brings out talent that's gone overlooked during the course of the regular season. Through the first weekend, we've already seen several under-the-radar prospects break through into the 2017 draft discussion for the first time all year.

    We ranked the top names still playing based on long-term NBA potential—not their current college impact.


    Narrowing the field for NBA coach of the year

     

    Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni
    BY MOKE HAMILTON

    Basketball Insiders

    March 19, 2017

    With the amazing feats of OKC's Russell Westbrook and Houston's James Harden, San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard’s emergence as perhaps the best two-way player in the league and Cleveland's LeBron James as the only other person that could challenge him for that title, the competition for this year's NBA Most Valuable Player Award is a four-horse race.

    Legitimate arguments can be made for each of the four, with Harden and Westbrook likely ending up first and second, in some order.

    Traditionally, the coach of the year Award has been much more difficult to predict. But this season, with NBA teams having less than 15 games remaining, a few names probably deserve more mention than others.

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    Fabulous freshmen take the stage in Tulsa

     

    Kansas freshman Josh Jackson (Photo by The Associated Press)
    BY JOHN ROHDE

    March 18, 2017

    TULSA -- Josh Jackson and Miles Bridges grew up roughly an hour apart in Michigan, but they will showcase their talents at the BOK Center in Tulsa at 4:15 p.m. CT on Sunday when Kansas (29-4) and Michigan State (20-14) meet in a Midwest Regional second-round game.

    Jackson and Bridges nearly wound up as teammates in East Lansing, Mich. Kansas won last year's recruiting battle for Jackson, but Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game will determine who won the war to advance to this year's Sweet 16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

    MSU coach Tom Izzo and KU coach Bill Self have crossed paths on the recruiting trail multiple times through the years. They co-existed in the Big Ten Conference for three seasons when Self coached at Illinois (2000-03) before heading to Kansas.

    Izzo recalled how he made his sales pitch to Jackson, deemed the country’s No. 1 college prospect last year according to Rivals.com.

    “I just got on my hands and knees and begged him. That’s what I did, and that wasn’t as good as Bill’s,” Izzo said.

    Self’s secret to winning the recruiting battle? “Well, it’s just so much warmer in Kansas than Michigan, I guess,” Self said with a laugh. “I don’t know. He would have been an unbelievable impact player wherever he went, and I do know that it was not an easy decision for him. But hey, we’ve lost enough guys to Michigan State, we should win one every now and then.”

    The reason Jackson chose KU? “I grew up a State fan,” Jackson explained, “but I believed I had a better chance of winning a national championship at Kansas.”

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    50 Shades of Westbrook

    (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
    BY BILL SIMMONS
    CEO, The Ringer

    March 9, 2017

    The most exciting play in basketball somehow happens five times a game. It’s always Russell Westbrook grabbing a rebound or an outlet pass, then deciding to dribble 70–80 feet for another defiant layup. Does he care how many opponents might be in his way? Not really. Westbrook pushes the ball quickly, skipping along the court like a gymnast building momentum for a double salto with a twist. Right around midcourt, he throws on Terminator sunglasses and calculates the remaining dangers.

    Three guys left, the one nearest to the rim is tallest … hmmmm … activate warp-speed mode … split the first two … go hard at the third … veer right at the last second, avoiding the rim protector who’s a split-second late … finish hard at the backboard … don’t careen into the camera guys.

    Russ solves everything in 0.034 seconds, only as he does it, he transforms from the Terminator into a Tesla. Whooooooooosh. He always beats the first two guys because they’re backpedaling, and unlike Russ, they’re actually human beings. They never had a chance. But the third guy — he’s always taller and he’s determined to avoid ending up on YouTube or Twitter. He either wants to block the shot or plow into Russ like a strong safety. Russ isn’t making him look bad.

    One problem: Suddenly, Russ is coming right at him. At 75 miles per hour.

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    Westbrook scores 58, yet Thunder loses fourth straight

    Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman
    ESPN Stats & Information

    March 8, 2017

    Russell Westbrook scored a career-high and franchise-record 58 points, but the Thunder still lost to the Trail Blazers 126-121 on Tuesday. Looking at his performance, it's clear he had little help from teammates, who struggled to make shots when he was not involved.

    Westbrook shot 54 percent from the field (21 of 39). His teammates shot even better -- 64 percent -- off his passes. But on shots taken on plays in which he wasn't involved, the Thunder shot 44 percent (14 of 32).

    A look into Westbrook's efficiency:

    - He shot 50 percent (15 of 30) on contested shots. This was his first time in nine games he made at least half of such shots.

    - He shot 50 percent (10 of 20) on pull-up jumpers off the dribble, his first time in seven games he made at least half of such shots.

    - He scored or assisted on 82 of the Thunder's 121 points (68 percent), including 41 of their 54 second-half points (76 percent). The 82 points scored or assisted on, and the 68 percent of the team's total, are season highs for Westbrook.

    - The Thunder was outscored by 12 points with him off the court Tuesday. Thunder has been outscored with him off the court six times in its past eight games and 43 times in 64 games overall this season.

    - He had the second-highest-scoring game in the NBA this season behind Klay Thompson's 60-point game in December against the Pacers. It was Westbrook's third career 50-point game, his second this season. He and James Harden of the Houston Rockets are the only players with multiple 50-point games this season.

    - He tied the SuperSonics/Thunder franchise record for points in a game, matching Fred Brown, who scored 58 in March 1974.

    - The Thunder has lost four consecutive games in which Westbrook has scored 45 or more points. Elias Sports Bureau research shows that the most recent player to lose four games in a row when he scored 45 or more was Nate "Tiny" Archibald with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in 1972-73.

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    Durant expected back for the playoffs in mid-April

    Adrian Wojnarowski
    The Vertical

    March 1, 2017

    Golden State Warriors All-Star Kevin Durant will minimally miss a month with an MCL sprain and bone bruise in his left knee, but is expected to return for the start of the playoffs in mid-April.

    After an MRI late Tuesday night, the Warriors announced on Wednesday that Durant suffered a Grade 2 medial collateral ligament sprain and a tibial bone bruise in Washington.

    Durant’s return is still targeted for the four-to-six-week range and hope remains that he can return for the start of the playoffs in mid-April.

    Durant suffered what the Warriors initially termed a hyperextended left knee in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards. Golden State center Zaza Pachulia lost his balance and fell into Durant’s left knee.

    Durant – a four-time NBA scoring champion and the 2013-14 league MVP – has been the Warriors’ top scorer this season, averaging 25.3 points per game. He signed a free-agent deal with Golden State in July, leaving Oklahoma City after spending nine years with the organization that drafted him. Golden State has the NBA’s best record at 50-10.

    Durant signed a two-year deal that included a player option that he is expected to exercise to become a free agent again in July.

    The Warriors are signing free-agent forward Matt Barnes to play some of Durant’s minutes during his recovery.

    Durant has consistently indicated that he expects to re-sign on a longer-term deal with Golden State this summer.

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    Westbrook deserved a better fate, and Presti delivered with a trade

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 23, 2107

    As Thursday’s 2 p.m. NBA trade deadline approached, it would have understandable if OKC Thunder general manager Sam Presti had decided to stand pat and allowed the remainder of the 2016-17 season to simply stay the course.

    With the All-Star Break ending, the Thunder (32-25) held an 8-game lead for the final Western Conference playoff spot, a comfortable cushion ahead of a team that had just traded away its franchise player in DeMarcus Cousins. Just 3½ games out of the No. 4 spot with 25 regular-season games remaining, OKC also was in position to improve its first-round playoff chances considerably.

    So Presti refused to stand pat.

    Presti tried to stand pat five years ago, and with good reason. He simultaneously had three of today’s greatest players on the OKC roster in Kevin Durant (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (also 23) and James Harden (22), plus budding star Serge Ibaka (22). Presti also had an impatient bench warmer named Reggie Jackson (21).

    Fresh off making the 2011-12 NBA Finals, a spry squad that coach Scott Brooks affectionately referred to as “Thunder U” was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse with the potential to win multiple championships.

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    Kings got fleeced in trade that sent Cousins to Pelicans

    Steve Yeater /Associated Press
    BY KYLE WAGNER
    FiveThirtyEight

    Feb. 20, 2017

    Word broke late Sunday night why DeMarcus Cousins played only two minutes in that evening’s All-Star game: He’d been traded. The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans agreed on a deal that will send Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a protected 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder. While the Kings may have been concerned about Cousins’s surliness and ongoing feud with referees, they were absolutely fleeced in basketball terms.

    The trade

    According to an updated version of FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections, which assumes Cousins’s production will remain steady for the remainder of this season, we’d expect Cousins to produce 46.5 Wins Above Replacement over the next six seasons, and value equivalent to $284.4 million on the open market. That’s a top-10 projection in the league over that period, and one that dwarfs the expected production of the players coming back to Sacramento.

    Hield has been a disappointment in his first season, shooting 39.2 percent from the floor and 36.9 percent from three while having minimal impact in other facets of the game. He’s only a rookie, so he has time to improve, but at 23 years old he is also a good deal older than most NBA rookies. (He’s also in the mold of other shooting guards favored by the Kings in recent drafts, such as Nik Stauskas and Ben McLemore, so it’s possible the Kings think Hield is a bigger asset than he’s shown himself to be so far.) The version of CARMELO that isn’t updated with this season’s stats expects him to produce around $37.4 million in value over the next five seasons. Evans, 27, is expected to produce around $77.4 million in value over the next five seasons, though he is only signed through the remainder of this season.

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    Westbrook and Durant must rise above it all during All-Star Game

    Westbrook and Durant must rise above it all during All-Star Game
    Photo by Sue Ogracki/Associated Press
    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 18, 2017

    Presumably, Russell Westbrook knows better.

    He knows better than to deliberately ignore former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant during Sunday night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans.

    There is no doubt in my mind Durant will pass the ball to Westbrook for an open dunk or jumper while they share the court against the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Given the lack of defense at this event, heaven knows there’ll be plenty of opportunities.

    For Westbrook’s sake, here’s hoping he’ll be wise enough do the same in kind for Durant.

    Western Conference All-Star coach Steve Kerr absolutely, positively should play Westbrook (non-starter) alongside Durant (starter) during the game, for at least one shift and possibly several. After all, no tandem at this year’s All-Star Game has played alongside each other longer than Westbrook and Durant.

    They know each other’s tendencies better than any other teammates. They were together for eight years with the Thunder and also with USA Basketball during summers. Meanwhile, Durant joined the Golden State Warriors less than eight months ago.

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    Durant-Westbrook feud adds to NBA All-Star drama

    Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle
    BY ANN KILLIAN
    San Francisco Chronicle

    Feb. 16, 2017

    It’s not often that you get an All-Star Game with actual, real-life drama. Usually these exhibitions are simply back-slapping celebrity photo-ops that happen to include a ball or a puck.

    But we’ve got some actual drama on tap this weekend in New Orleans.

    It comes courtesy of the Warriors and Kevin Durant. They’ve been the biggest story of the NBA season, so why not at the All-Star Game, too?

    Durant and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook will be reunited as teammates this weekend, both members of the Western Conference All-Star team.

    That might not be such a big deal except that the All-Star Game comes just one week after the emotional, intense night in Oklahoma City. During Durant’s first return to his former home city, the animosity between him and Westbrook seemed very real, bubbling onto the court. His coach and teammates described it as an ugly, difficult night.

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    Durant receives standing ovation at OKC restaurant after game

    J Pat Carter/Getty Images

     

    BY RAMONA SHELBURNE

    ESPN Senior Writer

    Feb. 14, 2017

     

    The Saturday night before Valentine's Day is always one of the biggest nights of the year for an upscale steakhouse like Mahogany Prime Steaks in downtown Oklahoma City. General manager Dave Osborn says couples from all over the state call weeks in advance to book a table.

    But this night in Oklahoma City wasn't about romance. It was about the love lost between a city and its once-favorite son.

    Kevin Durant arrived at Mahogany with a group of eight to 10 friends and family members shortly before midnight. The restaurant was still packed with Oklahoma City Thunder fans and players who had walked over from Chesapeake Energy Arena after Durant's first game back in town as a member of the Golden State Warriors.

    It had been an emotional night for all involved. But now it was time to unwind. So Durant went to his favorite postgame spot as a Thunder player, the restaurant owned by his former business partner, Hal Smith.

    Depending on whose version of events you believe, someone from Durant's camp might have even called a few weeks in advance to inquire about renting the place out after the game, but both the Warriors and Durant's camp disputed those claims. Nothing had been set up in advance.

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    The verdict is in -- Kevin Durant no longer is welcome in OKC

    THUNDER WARRIORS BASKETBALL
    Golden State's Kevin Durant (35) reacts after being called for his fifth foul during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017. Golden State won 130-114. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

     

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb, 12, 2017

     

    Saturday night’s game between the OKC Thunder and Golden State Warriors was a mismatch and you can credit, or blame, Kevin Durant for this.

    With Durant’s free-agent defection on July 4 last year, the Thunder went from being an elite team (one win shy of claiming last year's Western Conference championship) to its current status as a lower-echelon playoff team (currently the conference's No. 7 seed).

    In three meetings this season, Golden State has dismantled OKC by 26 (122-96 at Oracle Arena on Nov. 3), by 21 (121-100 at Oracle on Jan. 18) and by 16 last night with a 130-114 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The season's final mismatch will be March 20 in OKC.

    If Durant’s intent when he left was to humiliate teammates and fans who did everything within their power to support him as a four-time scoring champ and the league's 2013-14 Most Valuable Player, well … congrats. Mission accomplished.

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    Durant or Westbrook: Whose Thunder jersey will be raised to the rafters first? The answer is neither

    Durant or Westbrook?
    Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 11, 2017

     

    With Kevin Durant breaking hearts and Russell Westbrook mending them, it raises a question. Which player will have his Thunder jersey raised to the rafters first?

    The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Stunned Thunder fans met denial head-on last July 4 when Durant chose to leave OKC and join the already overloaded Golden State Warriors.

    Durant’s decision was so shocking, denial lingered longer than usual. Anger might never leave. For many fans, acceptance might never arrive.

    Durant turned his back on a state that instantaneously embraced him despite playing for the University of Texas his lone collegiate season. More than seven months later, with that gaping wound still fresh, raw emotion no doubt will greet Durant tonight when he returns to OKC for the first time.

    As an unrestricted free agent, Durant could sign with whatever team he pleased. Yet it seemed ludicrous for Durant to leave the place where for eight years he expressed his unwavering devotion to a crazed fan base that did the same in kind.

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    Durant: Perhaps Thunder fans could compromise

    Warriors Kevin Durant Returns to Oklahoma

    BY JOHN ROHDE

    Feb. 10, 2017

     

    Here’s what I hope will happen Saturday night during pre-game introductions when the Golden State Warriors visit the OKC Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena:

    Durant receives a standing ovation as he walks through a tunnel of teammates. The public address announcer pauses to allow Durant to soak in the moment for the loudest ovation ever given to an opposing player inside The Peake. The decibel level rises each time Durant smiles and waves to the crowd as he fights back tears. The cheers slowly subside and pre-game introductions finally continue.

    Here’s what I expect will happen:

    A sellout crowd stands as Durant slowly walks through his tunnel of teammates. No one is able to hear the public address announcer. Though there are some cheers, they are overwhelmed by venomous boos. Durant continues to walk slowly onto the court, avoiding eye contact with the crowd and doing his best to hide his heartache. He does not smile. He does not wave. After only a slight pause, the public address announcer continues with other introductions, unable to be heard over the steady stream of boos.

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    Durant says media created 'feud' with Westbrook

    Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors
    AP Photo/Ben Margot
    BY JAMES HERBERT
    @outsidethenba

    Feb. 8, 2017

    A few days before returning to Chesapeake Energy Arena as a visiting player for the first time on Saturday, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant told ESPN's Marc Stein that the media is responsible for the supposed "feud" between himself and former Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook.

    "Early on in the season, I was doing an interview with someone and I used the word 'unselfish' describing my teammates here with the Warriors," Durant said. "And someone asked Russell a question, asked if he heard what I said about being unselfish and he phrased the question as if I was saying that the Thunder and their organization and the team was selfish. Once I heard that, I was like, 'They are trying to get in between this thing and make it bigger than what it is.' Obviously Russell wasn't going to hear that interview I had about me just talking about my teammates I have now, and, you know, someone in Oklahoma City phrased it to him as if I was calling them selfish. So it's that easy. It's that easy for the media to twist something up and for the media to, you know, make a feud between us."

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    LeBron and Love respond to Carmelo rumor

    Carmelo Anthony Cleveland Cavalier
    Getty Images
    NBA.com Staff

    Feb 7, 2017

    Cavs respond to Melo rumor | Kings keeping Cousins | Okafor deals with trade talk | Pelicans ponder future | Wizards come up short in thriller

    No. 1: Cavs respond to Melo rumor -- A New York Daily News report came out Monday evening that LeBron James would accept the cost of losing Kevin Love if it meant getting Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks. And after their thrilling, overtime win in Washington on Monday (in which Love scored 39 points), the Cleveland Cavaliers - the front office, the coach, and the players - did not hesitate to respond, as ESPN's Dave McMenamin writes:

    "What do they say?" Love said before reciting a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. "'A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put his pants on.' So, it's a lie.

    "You know, if Bron is having any problem with me," Love said before smiling and snickering. "I mean, it's just not true. It's almost laughable. I'm on this team. I'm going to be on this team. And we want to win with the guys that we have."

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    Curry’s biggest adjustment to Durant is not adjusting much at all

     

    Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors beat Clippers
    (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
    By Tim Kawakami

    Jan. 28, 2017

    OAKLAND–The Warriors aren’t at their best unless Stephen Curry is at his best, still, continuously, even this season, right this moment.

    Such as: Tonight, when Curry lit up the Clippers for 43 points in three quarters, including a 25-point third-quarter explosion when he was 5 for 8 from three-point distance. Again: That was just in the third quarter, when he out-scored LA 25-23 by himself.

    By the time the quarter was over and Curry was done for the night, the Warriors held a 43-point lead, and they breezed to a 144-98 victory at Oracle Arena.

    The Clippers didn’t have Chris Paul, of course; but when Curry is going like this, and when his teammates are so happily to let him keep going–making a 51-footer at the half-court buzzer to close the first half, for example–this is the Warriors team that can blow anybody and everybody off the court.

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    Can good shot selection carry Thunder through the playoffs?

    Oklahoma City ThunderBen Alamar
    ESPN Stats & Info

    Jan.13, 2017

    There has been an increased focus in the NBA on shot selection in recent years, as teams like the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers look to take more and more 3-point shots, particularly emphasizing the super-efficient corner 3. But because teams like the Rockets and Cavs are stocked with high-level shooters, it can be difficult to distinguish the efforts of teams that take good shots from those that are good at making shots -- the Rockets and Cavs do both.

    A study of where the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting their shots, however, provides a clear example of how shot selection can impact an offense.

    The Thunder get 35 percent of their shots within 3 feet of the basket -- far more than

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