A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
Take One: The Warriors and Kevin Durant have found the perfect balance
It’s taken three years and happened in the midst of a flurry of reports pegging his fate as a New York Knick this summer, but Kevin Durant has never played more like a Golden State Warrior.
For the past two years, the Warriors’ offense has been defined by an existential tug-of-war between coach Steve Kerr’s preference for dizzying sets — a coaching adage: passes move faster than players — and Durant’s preference for dizzying isolation moves.
But these days, Durant is fully embracing Dubs ball. Since returning from an ankle sprain in mid-March, he has only hoisted more than 20 shots twice — both losses, one with Steph Curry sidelined.
To hear Durant, his mindset hasn’t shifted. “If I got one shot at the end of the first quarter, it’s just because of how the game plays out,” he told reporters. “If I got seven assists by the end of the second quarter, it’s just how they played me. I’m not looking to go out there and not shoot the ball. Or shoot too much. I’m just out there playing.”
There’s some truth to that. Durant has relinquished very little in service of the Warriors’ recent ball-whipping nostalgia. He still touches the ball more than any other Warrior, and his usage rate insists most possessions still end with him. So why does everything look — hell, feel — the way it used to? It speaks to the ethos of Warriors ball: the ripple effects of a few extra swings and a few less contested shots, of curling around a screen and looking to kick out instead of jam a floater over a 7-footer. Get down to brass tacks, and that’s the only thing that’s really changed. In his last nine games, 60 percent of Durant’s shots within 10 feet have been open, as opposed to 44 percent for the rest of the season. Outside 10 feet, that figure jumps from 37.8 percent to 50 percent.
Volume scoring, no matter how easy it comes, will always look like a Sisyphean task. By letting go of the throttle ever so slightly, Durant has imbued his game with an air of easy dominance. Has he ever looked more unstoppable than he did after ramming three dunks in a row down the Nuggets’ throats Tuesday?
Is it possible that the difference is merely cosmetic? Sure. In terms of sheer productivity, Golden State’s offense isn’t any better or worse when Durant plays well. But it’s more cohesive, and when you’re already fighting a war of attrition, you’re better off not having to battle yourself at the same time.
Take Two: Trae Young is making the Hawks dangerous
Trae Young may never get his due in a Rookie of the Year race that always favors early bloomers, but that hasn’t stopped NBA teams from guarding him like a star, boxing him into corners and picking him up from 30 feet, where he launches 3-point cannonballs with no remorse.
He has been flat-out scary since the All-Star break, not merely in the way every NBA star is: If you’re cheering against him, every successive dribble up half-court will turn another layer of your stomach inside out. He can kill teams from anywhere, and lately, he has not been afraid to try. He is playing like Steve Nash with the aggression every Steve Nash fan wishes he had, perhaps because Young plays where Nash did not: a league that knows you can never shoot enough threes.
Young is letting it fly as if he takes being open as an affront upon his skill and the Hawks are reaping the benefits. They were 19-39 before the All Star Break, but are now breaking even with a 10-11 record since. Why? Young is averaging 25 points and 9.2 assists over that stretch. Their offensive rating has increased by 6.3 points per 100 possessions; it plummets down to 100 when he’s on the bench. The Hawks go as he goes, and right now, they’re only going up.
Take Three: Speaking of rebuilding teams that catch a late stride …
Man, is it ever infuriating that every win the Hawks notch decreases their chances of drafting Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick in the draft. The lottery system is frustrating in numerous ways, but this might be the worst.
Every few years, some up-and-coming team inevitably finds its stride by some measure of development, chemistry and a refusal to shut down players for no reason — characteristics of functionality that should be rewarded — and ends up paying the price later.
When young players who could presumably benefit from low-consequence minutes on the back-end of a season are being sat down, the system isn’t rewarding rebuilding. It’s rewarding flat-out tanking, even if the odds have been flattened out. Why should the Bulls and Knicks have a better shot at drafting Williamson than the Hawks?
So here’s a modest proposal: skew the odds so that the closer a team is to the middle of the lottery pack, the better shot they have at the No. 1 pick. Think of it like a pyramid, where, in the end, the 16th-worst team in the NBA gets the same odds as the 30th. The measure isn’t perfect, but it would make overt tanking go extinct while rewarding the rebuilding teams that are actually making good on blank slates.
Take Four: Dwyane Wade is reaping the benefits of self-aware stardom
On April 9, Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade will play his final game at American Airlines Arena. Maybe it’s the nostalgia, the clutch plays or the fact that his output has been more than reasonable — 14.5 points and 4.1 assists off the bench — but the quality of the farewell tour has led to the inevitable question: Could Wade handle an encore?
Wade hasn’t stubbornly kicked and screamed his way out of playability (see: Carmelo Anthony). And while this Heat season has assuredly been about Wade — the jersey swaps, the interviews and profiles, the road tributes and cheers — he hasn’t quite hijacked it either (see: Kobe). The difference is that Wade has always understood how much he has to give if he wants to take. His calculations are occasionally self-serving, but in due time, he manages to “get it” when other stars don’t, whether it was accepting LeBron James was the better player during their championship run, or that he’d have to come off the bench and play a mentorship role for Miami to offset some of his more slippery hero-ball attempts.
Tom Crean, who coached him at Marquette, told me last year that Wade possesses “the gift of honesty” toward others and himself. It’s allowed him to do things on his own terms. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Wade, it’s that it’s safe to assume he knows what he’s capable of more than anyone else.
Take Five: Stars love being messy, even if they pretend to hate it
I don’t know whose side to take here: LeBron James and Kevin Durant, for covering their mouths and having a covert conversation on national television instead of say, literally anywhere else, or the legions of media outlets who are breaking out the lip-readers and speculating on what it all means.
In the end, the sly grin on Durant’s face takes the cake. The constant surveillance and speculation, even if it’s hard-earned and he’s selective about when it’s actually bad, has to be annoying. I’m glad he’s having some fun with it. Troll on, KD.
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