My latest column for Sportsnaut is about why the NBA's lack of parity is a good thing. Here's the link. Enjoy!
Serge Ibaka is in Toronto, Mason Plumlee is in Denver and Carmelo Anthony is still in New York. That means trade season is officially open in the NBA, so what better way to celebrate than looking at six fits that make too much sense not to happen.
Lou Williams to Oklahoma City
Williams’ deal—with 2-years, $14 million left on it—is an absolute bargain in this market. He’s a bad defender, but a volume scorer off the bench who shoots 38.2 percent from 3 with a 23.4 PER has value.
However, the Lakers desperately need to tank. Not only is their pick for this season only top-3 protected, but if it conveys then Orlando gets their 2019 unprotected first rounder. If they tank and keep the pick, they only owe Orlando their 2017 and ’18 second rounders. They have to trade Williams and the Thunder needs his scoring.
Russell Westbrook is their only player averaging more than 20 per game—his 41.8 percent usage is as alarming as it is astounding. Someone has to carry the load when Westbrook sits—a time during which OKC has a 97.3 offensive rating and -10.9 net rating. Throw in the fact that Williams’ salary fits right into Ersan Ilyasova’s trade exception and the bevy of OKC young guys the Lakers would be interested in—Jerami Grant, Cameron Payne, Domantas Sabonis—and this makes perfect sense for both sides.
Jahlil Okafor to Dallas
With the Mavericks’ season having turned into a dumpster fire and Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement looming, the team needs to get younger. I’m no fan of Okafor, but he’s only 21 and has immense skill as a post player. He may have to come off the bench for the rest of the year if the Mavericks can’t unload Andrew Bogut, but Okafor could be a long-term solution at center.
If Philly isn’t interested in any of Dallas’ point guards then this deal could hit a road bump, but the Mavericks have all of their first rounders. A top-5 protected 2018 first and a veteran point guard like Deron Williams or Devin Harris could get the job done.
Jrue Holiday to Philadelphia
Come on, who doesn’t want to see this? The Sixers’ trade of Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first rounder (which became Elfrid Payton, whom the Sixers immediately traded for Dario Saric, a 2015 second rounder which became Wily Hernangomez and a 2017 first rounder) kickstarted The Process.
Now that the end of The Process is in sight—especially if the Lakers relinquish that pick to the Sixers—bringing Holiday back to the Wells Fargo Center is only fitting. New Orleans could get back one of the Sixers’ bigs—Okafor, Noel or Saric—to play alongside Anthony Davis for the long term. If the right pieces are involved, maybe they could even persuade Bryan Colangelo to take on Omer Asik’s disastrous contract. The Sixers have the cap room and could use the stretch provision immediately, providing cap relief to New Orleans to help sweeten the deal for themselves.
Ricky Rubio to Milwaukee
With Minnesota’s season lost and Kris Dunn waiting in the wings for a starting job, trading Ricky Rubio is only logical for the Timberwolves. Milwaukee is one of few teams that aren’t set at point guard—they’re currently starting Matthew Dellavedova and, after Jabari Parker’s devastating injury, need a spark to keep them in the playoff race. Rubio won’t help the Bucks’ already-cramped spacing, but he’ll make the players around him better just as he has for his entire career. He’ll help young players like Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker develop, be a creator the Bucks haven’t had at point guard and play respectable defense.
This gets interesting when you consider what Milwaukee may send back. Could Tom Thibodeau decide he can remake Greg Monroe into a respectable defender and take his contract? Does he want Tony Snell back? Can he redeem Rashad Vaughn? What if a third team gets involved? There are an endless number of permutations to this, which is what makes it so fascinating.
Goran Dragic to Chicago
This made more sense before the Heat ripped off an improbable win-streak that vaulted them back into the playoff conversation, but hear me out. The 2017 Draft is stacked and the Heat still don’t have much talent on their roster. If they somehow make the playoffs, they’re getting swept in the first round anyway and they’re not too far out of the #4 lottery spot.
The Bulls need to save face on this awful season and if they swap Rajon Rondo, Doug McDermott and the better of Sacramento’s top-10 protected first rounder and their first rounder for Dragic, they could compete in the playoffs. Dragic has gone scorched earth the past month with a 67.6 true shooting percentage—including 59.3 percent from 3—and an absurd +7.8 net rating. That’s unsustainable, but he would add spacing to Chicago, which they desperately need.
Trading for Rondo, on the other hand, is the perfect stealth-tanking move for Miami. There are only two years on his contract—Miami could release him over the summer with a relatively small hit—and putting Rondo on the floor with Dion Waiters would be must-see on League Pass for all the wrong reasons. This would reverse all of the damage the win streak has done to Miami’s long-term outlook and allow the Bulls to put a happy face on their front office failures.
Brook Lopez to Portland
The Nets are in desperate need of assets. They don’t have first round picks and they don’t have good players, which is a bad combination. Lopez may be their only trade asset with Jeremy Lin injured and the Blazers need a big man. New acquisition Jusuf Nurkic won’t carry the load, Meyers Leonard can’t defend, Festus Ezeli is injured and Ed Davis can’t play center. Flip Leonard and Memphis’ first round pick—maybe even throw in Evan Turner’s contract if Brooklyn will take it—for Lopez and Portland’s playoff chances improve dramatically.
Because he plays for Brooklyn, Lopez has become massively underrated. He averages 1.01 points per possession on post-ups—more than Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from 3—respectable for a 7-footer—ranks 10th in blocks per game and plays respectable defense at the rim. If the Nets get Leonard and—for the sake of conversation—Turner in return, those are two more assets they can flip in a year or two for picks. Throw in the first rounder—which probably turns into another Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Caris LeVert—and this is an easy decision for both teams.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
Yesterday afternoon the Denver Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic and their 2017 first round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee and a 2018-second round pick, a move that hurts their long-term interest in favor of short-term mediocrity. The Nuggets last made the playoffs in 2013, when they lost in the first round against the then-burgeoning Golden State Warriors. Since then, the national spotlight has looked at the team and shrugged its shoulders as the Nuggets languished not just in record but in attendance, where they’ve finished 19th, 27th, and 30th in the past three years—an embarrassment which the Kroenke family evidently wants to fix before getting to the team’s long-term success.
At 24-30, the Nuggets sit at eighth in the Western Conference and Mason Plumlee will undoubtedly help them stay there. A significantly better passer and overall better player than Nurkic, whose -10.3 net rating was disastrous for a player averaging 18 minutes per game, Plumlee can slide right into bench units. Denver hopes his passing will spark the offense when Nikola Jokic sits—the Nuggets are top-10 in assist percentage this year, but when Nurkic played without Jokic that changed dramatically. Their most-played lineup this season with Nurkic and without Jokic has a lowly 35.8 assist percentage, which would rank dead last in the league by a longshot. If you only look at lineups without Jokic, the shift is less drastic, but the on/off numbers still show a difference of nearly 10 percent. Denver, rightfully, is optimistic that will change with Plumlee, whose 21.4 assist percentage blows away Nurkic’s 11.0 percent. With Plumlee on the court, Portland assists 58.4 percent of their baskets—better than with any other individual. Switch him out with Nurkic and Denver can breathe easy with Jokic off the court, knowing the ball will keep whizzing around the interior without the flashy Serbian out there. Mike Malone can even feel comfortable putting the two together—in 108 minutes, this year; Jokic and Nurkic have a -15.6 net rating. Spacing will still be an issue with Jokic and Plumlee—though Jokic is at a cool 36.3 percent from 3 and getting better by the month—but Plumlee is more developed than Nurkic. Even at age 26, he’s an old man in some of Denver’s lineups. In the short-term, this helps Denver makes the playoffs—especially given that a competitor is on the other end of the deal.
But in the long-term? Both players are on rookie deals, but Plumlee is a restricted free agent after this season. After recent cap spikes, he could easily command $18 million a year, in the same range as Greg Monroe, Joakim Noah and Ian Mahinmi. Nurkic is 22, has an extra year on his deal and won’t command as much in the open market without a big improvement over the next year. Moreover, Denver also gave a first rounder from Memphis. Even if they make the playoffs as the #8 seed, that pick is probably around #20 in a stacked draft. Harry Giles, Ike Anigbogu and OG Anuoby on rookie deals are all worth more than Mason Plumlee is in the long term. Portland gets that—they now have three picks in this draft: their own, Memphis’ and Cleveland’s, a good way to start making up for the slew of horrific deals they signed this offseason. If they make the playoffs, Denver will get two games of ticket revenue and some national exposure, but it won’t move them any closer to winning a championship. The Nuggets have the pieces to be a title contender in a few years—Jokic is every bit as good as Kristaps Porzingis but fails to get the same attention because he plays for Denver, Jamal Murray has flashed this year despite tailing off recently and there’s still hope for Mudiay. However, their core is still raw—there’s a lot of building left to do and a lot of questions to be answered—namely those surrounding Mudiay. I’m not against trading Nurkic—there probably wasn’t room for him long-term anyway—but a first rounder is a lot to pay when you consider the cap space Denver will have to devote to Plumlee. Even if they manage to offload Kenneth Faried’s 4-year, $50 million deal, which sporadically pops up in trade rumors every few months, there’s no point in handicapping themselves in free agency for players who, ultimately, won’t be a deciding factor in whether or not they eventually compete for a title. Yet, the Nuggets continue to chase short-term mediocrity at the expense of long-term gain. We saw it this summer when they tried to sign Dwyane Wade and we’re seeing it again now.
All stats are from NBA.com or basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted
 Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Nurkic
The NBA season always seems to creep up on you. With the NFL in full-swing and MLB postseason happening, it’s easy to forget that basketball is going to be back in [checks watch] three hours. The League Pass alerts, Spursgasms, Stephen Curry heat checks, Russell Westbrook drives and DeMarcus Cousins dirty looks toward teammates are just three hours away from being in our lives again. If you’re looking for some last minute gambling tips, here is your guide.
All odds are from Bovada unless otherwise noted.
Charlotte Hornets to win Southeast Division (+350)
Charlotte Hornets over 42.5 wins (-105)
Charlotte Hornets to make playoffs (-140)
These odds may not reflect it, but the Hornets are good. Last season, Charlotte won 48 games and finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Southeast despite Michael Kidd-Gilchrist playing just seven games.
There are some concerns: Marvin Williams may not shoot 40.2 percent from 3 again, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin are gone, Nicolas Batum had a career-year and probably won’t match it—but this is still a playoff team by a fair margin. Steve Clifford is one of the most underrated coaches in the league, Kemba Walker is turning into a real crunch-time scorer and Batum is still a solid 3 and D player at his worst. Even if his 3-point percentage declines by five or six points, Marvin Williams is still a viable stretch four who can negate the damage Kidd-Gilchrist does to their spacing.
Additionally, the Southeast has gotten markedly worse. Unless Justise Winslow turns into a two-way All-Star, the Heat are out of the playoff picture. The Hawks effectively traded Al Horford for Dwight Howard—a move that helps their rebounding at the cost of their spacing, defense and chemistry. John Wall and Bradley Beal are at each other’s throats in Washington—a chemistry issue for a team that already has to deal with Markieff Morris—not to mention the fact that the Wizards are depending on a strategy that won them one playoff series two years ago. Frank Vogel’s Magic are intriguing, but they’re still at least a year away.
Chicago Bulls under 38.5 wins (+115)
Chicago Bulls not to make playoffs (Even)
The Bulls brought in Fred Hoiberg to run a pace-and-space system to better fit today’s NBA. One year later, they’re starting Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez—a five-man crew with a grand total of one 3-point shooter, assuming if you count Mirotic, who has shot 35.5 percent from beyond the arc in his career, as a 3-point shooter. The building of this roster makes absolutely no sense unless Gar Forman’s goal was to sell jerseys. You can already see the chemistry issues building as Wade, Butler and Rondo compete for touches, not to mention the latter’s incessant stat-padding and the potential conflicts with Hoiberg given the impossible task he has in front of him and the poor job he last season.
New York Knicks under 38.5 wins (+115)
Somehow, people haven’t come to grips with the fact that Derrick Rose is not a starting-caliber point guard. The evidence is in plain sight—Rose was 68th among point guards in Real Plus-Minus last season, per ESPN.com. That’s lower than Joe Young, Tyler Ennis, Marcelo Huertas and Ray McCallum. Joakim Noah isn’t anywhere near the player he was in 2013-14 and that’s assuming he stays healthy. Carmelo Anthony will mail it in on the defensive end and, frankly, isn’t a good enough player on the offensive end to carry the load at age 32. Kristaps Porzingis is a great player, but he’s surrounded by older players who will demand touches. As soon as the Knicks start losing, there will be conflict between Jeff Hornacek and Phil Jackson, giving the season that trademarked sense of hopelessness.
Denver Nuggets over 37 wins (-120)
This is based mostly on projection systems being smarter than me—FiveThirtyEight and Kevin Pelton's SCHOENE both have the Nuggets at 40 wins and I can see the upside. Nikola Jokic is as good a passer as a big man can be and on the cusp of becoming a legitimate star. If Denver doesn’t trade Danilo Gallinari, he’ll give them a go-to guy on the offensive end and Wilson Chandler is returning from injury. Kenneth Faried will either be a scorer off the bench or draw assets as trade-bait and Will Barton would have been a 6th Man of the Year candidate had the team drawn more national attention. The Nuggets may not make the playoffs, but they can compete.
Memphis Grizzlies not to make playoffs (+150)
The bottom of the West is so cluttered that no team should have odds this high to miss the playoffs. On top of that, the Grizzlies have more injury risk than any of these teams and a lack of depth that will rear its head if Marc Gasol or Mike Conley goes down again. Zach Randolph is going to drop off one of these years, even if David Fizdale has him come off the bench, and FiveThirtyEight has Memphis at just 35 wins, well out of contention for the 8-seed. At +150, the odds are just too good to pass up.
Blake Griffin to win MVP (+3300)
MVP seems like the most interesting bet this year, but I’m surprised there haven’t been more arguments for Griffin. Let’s assume that Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are out of the running because no media member will want to vote for a Warrior. Let’s also assume that LeBron starts going the Tim Duncan route and plays between 60 and 65 games, taking himself out of contention for the award. Russell Westbrook is currently the odds-on favorite, but there are legitimate questions about his efficiency with the offense entirely in his hands. The counting stats will undoubtedly be great, but if his usage rate climbs above 35 percent, he may get treated like Kobe Bryant did in 2006 with a similarly loaded field. There’s also a chance Oklahoma City doesn’t make the playoffs, in which case there’s a pretty low chance the media votes for him. If the Pelicans don’t make it, they won’t vote for Anthony Davis either.
Kawhi Leonard and James Harden are both interesting, but Leonard lacks the offensive flash necessary to ever be heralded as the best in the league while Harden will get docked for his defense—especially given that the Rockets may be one of the worst defensive teams in the league even without him. As long as we’re not veering off into Karl-Anthony Towns’ territory, that leaves only a few viable options: Paul George (+2200), Kyrie Irving (+3300), Chris Paul (+3300), Damien Lillard (+3300) and Griffin.
George is intriguing—he could hypothetically carry Indiana to 50 wins—but the way Larry Bird has built that team reminds me too much of the Bulls. The Pacers may get to the playoffs, but they won’t be a juggernaut, nor will George carry them emphatically enough to grab attention. Even if LeBron James plays just 60 games, that’s still enough to take the credit out of Kyrie Irving’s hands and in Portland, Lillard’s defense is a few Vine-able plays away from Harden territory.
Chris Paul is 31—old enough to hand the offensive reigns to Griffin for the majority of the regular season. If Blake (and everyone else) can stay healthy, the Clippers are capable of winning 60 games. They’ve fallen off the radar, but don’t forget that they won 53 last year while being riddled with injuries. At his best, Griffin is a top-10 player—an offensive threat inside with ability to step out past the elbows that can switch on the defensive end and carry a team in crucial playoff games. If Doc Rivers takes the plunge and slides him over to the five for stretches, Griffin will look like Draymond Green with a better offensive game and the Clippers will become the darling of the media—which will strive to avoid making the Warriors the topic of discussion for an entire season.
Rudy Gay to be traded during the regular season (-175)
Gay essentially demanded a trade without explicitly demanding a trade and risking a fine. Even for the ever-incompetent Sacramento front office, it’s a no-brainer to get some sort of asset for Gay while they can. This is as close to a lock as anything can be.
Rick Carlisle to win Coach of the Year (+3500)
I don’t have Dallas making the playoffs, but the West could be congested enough that they slip into the postseason on the backs of Dirk Nowitzki, Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews. As crazy as that sounds, it’s not much more insane than the Mavs winning 42 games last season when, before the season, it seemed likely they would tank to keep a top-7 protected pick dealt to Boston in the disastrous Rajon Rondo trade. Carlisle has won this award before, but it was in 2001-02—his rookie year as a head coach—when he took the Pistons to 50 wins and the #2 seed. It’s been too long since Carlisle was given some appreciation—the fact that he’s 35/1 for this award reflects that more than anything. Dallas is primed to beat expectations and if they do, Carlisle will be given the credit (rightly so).
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
 They were the six seed for the postseason due to tiebreakers as four different teams in the East finished 48-34 last season
 This bet is from Sportsbook.ag as Bovada does not offer odds on Coach of the Year
In addition to leading the 1996 Wake Forest Demon Deacons to the Elite Eight, tying their best finish since 1962, inspiring the most successful tank job of all-time, winning the 1997 Wooden Award and making the All-American first team twice, Tim Duncan spent his time in college co-writing a paper that would be published in a clinical psychology book called "Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors". It was titled "Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism" and discusses human ego and why we dislike it.
Has there ever been anything more fitting in human history? A Google search gives no evidence of Tim Duncan getting into trouble, having his work done for him or skipping out on classes at Wake Forest. Instead, it turns up a paper on the perils of a bloated ego. And for 19 seasons, nobody adhered to that paper better than its author.
Over 1,392 regular season games, more than all but six players, and 251 playoff games, more than all but one player, Tim Duncan was the basketball equivalent of a robot. He was the most “boring” superstar in the league with the most “boring” nickname whose teams won the most “boring” championships in the most “boring” fashion playing for the most “boring” city.
In a 2012 feature for Sports Illustrated, Sean Elliot, Duncan’s former teammate and current Spurs broadcaster, told Chris Ballard that “In 15 years, he hasn’t changed”, and was absolutely right. Duncan’s signature turnaround bank shot, his cradling of the basketball before every game and his wide-eyed hands-up pleading with referees stayed exactly the same throughout his entire career. As the entire league shifted, including San Antonio’s playing style and the team Gregg Popovich built around Duncan, the man himself stayed exactly the same.
Watch the game that is widely considered Duncan’s best Finals performance—Game 6 of the 2003 Finals against the Nets—and you’ll gain an appreciation for two things. The first is for Duncan himself, who finishes with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks, who moves himself into the lane for runners with sheer will, rebounds as easily as Mozart plays the violin and passes from the post like no other big man, dumping the ball into cutters at the perfect moment and consistently beating double teams with easy flicks of the wrist that find open shooters.
The second is for why the 2003 Finals were one of the lowest rated since before Magic and Bird popularized basketball; two small markets, a new rights holder that failed to properly advertise the product and didn’t have the right broadcasting tandem, and generally unentertaining basketball. Only once in the entire series did a team break 100 points and only one other time did a team break 90. Most of the game is broken down into 1-on-1 isolation basketball, the type that caused the U.S. to lose in the 2004 Olympics to Argentina.
That contrast between Duncan playing incredible basketball and the game around him being so drab is why it took so long for the collective NBA fanbase to appreciate him. His three Finals MVPs came in a terrible lockout shortened season (’99) and during a stretch where basketball had a dip in popularity because the play was so bad (’03 and ’05). Ditto for his two regular season MVPs, where he averaged a combined 24.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 blocks over two straight seasons (’02 and ’03). Even the 2007 Finals, a series where he arguably should have won MVP over Tony Parker, was one of the least compelling Finals ever and had lower ratings than 2003 to show for it.
The collective We, the basketball watching public that is, found the things Duncan was good at to be boring for most of his career. He was consistent as hell, making the All-Star team every year from 2000 to 2011 and either the 1st or 2nd Team All-NBA every year from 1998 to 2009. His 15 All-NBA selections are tied for first all-time with Kobe and Kareem and his 10 1st Team All-NBA selections are tied for second all-time with six other players. He’s 6th all-time in rebounding, probably the least fun to watch activity that can be done on a basketball court and 5th all-time in blocks, only instead of emphatic blocks into the third row that make SportsCenter, Duncan’s blocks are often in the direction of a teammate, meant to start a fast break, much like the way people describe Bill Russell’s blocks. He’s not an incredible scorer despite being 14th all-time in the category and when he does score; he does it in a way that the collective We does not find compelling, with a turnaround bank shot or something else of the like. He’s not flashy or egotistical—remember that paper he wrote in college?—and he’s never once shown concern for his brand, even after losing $20 million to a crooked financial advisor, doing some commercials but none of them memorable. I had to do a Google search to see if Duncan has any signature shoes and if so what brand are they. Turns out, Duncan had two signature Nike releases in the early 2000s that didn’t make much noise and then signed with Adidas, where he remained, quietly, for the rest of his career.
When you take all of that into account, it makes a lot of sense as to why it took most of the collective We until pretty recently to properly appreciate Duncan. Because we now get our basketball analysis from a million different places from a ton of really good, smart writers and podcasters and TV personalities as oppose to SportsCenter and one really good, smart writer from a local paper, there’s enough room for the nuance it takes to appreciate Duncan fully. The 2014 Spurs were the most appreciated championship team Duncan was a part of for a lot of reasons, including that they were simply the most entertaining by any standard, but the biggest was that they were simply more room for them to be appreciated than their counterparts from 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
But forget about the public perception of Duncan for a minute and take a step back. The guy averaged 19 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.2 blocks for his career. When you consider that, while effective for the last five years of his career, Duncan had to save himself during the regular season and his averages went down, that’s more than impressive, it’s incredible. Take out those five seasons and Duncan averages 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 blocks. Over his best five seasons (2000-2004), he averaged 23.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.5 blocks and in the playoffs he averaged 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks. There’s remarkable consistency there that stays when you look at advanced stats as well. No matter where you look in his career, saving for the last year or two, Duncan was a double-double machine, consistently putting up 20 and 10 or 21 and 13, shooting about 50 percent from the field with a PER near 24 or 25.
Defensively, Duncan was an absolute force his entire career, making more All-Defense teams than anyone. He’s also 7th all-time in Defensive Box Plus-Minus to boot. When you take the span of his career into account, there probably hasn’t been a better, more consistent big man on defense in NBA history. Hell, there probably hasn’t been a better big man in NBA history period.
You can make the argument for Bill Russell, but Russell played in a less athletic era when the league was made up of just eight teams with most of them adhering to an unwritten rule that you couldn’t play more than four black players at a time. Duncan has succeeded in an era where every player knows and takes advantage of the benefits of nutrition and exercise and more of them use steroids than anybody will care to admit and he did it for longer. If you were to switch the years that Duncan and Russell were born, it’s likely that they would have each other’s careers but ultimately, it’s tougher to do it in this era.
Russell has by far the strongest argument against Duncan, but let’s look at some of the others just for the hell of it. Duncan epitomized unselfishness more than maybe anyone else. That, along with the rest of his previously established resume should put him ahead of Wilt, who was benched in the last five minutes of Game 7 of the 1969 Finals for milking an injury and because his coach couldn’t stand him (neither could his teammates). Shaq has better individual seasons than Duncan but Duncan’s longevity puts him ahead of O’Neal who had 17 years before becoming washed up and “only” 14 years at or near the top of the league. Ditto for Olajuwon. Kareem was bad enough at defense that he got made fun of for it in Airplane and I don’t think anyone would argue for Moses Malone, Karl Malone, Bob Pettit Barkley or Bill Walton.
If you had to pick a big man to play with, to win you a title, you’d pick either Duncan or Russell and I’d go with Duncan. In 2007, Jazz assistant Phil Johnson told Sports Illustrated “I’ve never seen [Duncan] get on one of his teammates…I see only complimentary things.” Not only did Duncan make his teammates better for every one of his 19 seasons, he didn’t rag on them or blame them either. That philosophy won the Spurs five titles, including at least two where they beat the better team if all you did was look at the roster (2003 and 2014).
More than anything, that’s how we’ll remember Duncan. Not as the boring guy with the boring nickname on the boring team but as one of the guys you’d want on your team if your life depended on it. A guy who made everyone around him better for 19 seasons, creating a juggernaut in San Antonio that persevered as over 300 teammates came through the doors, most of them exiting with a ring on their fingers courtesy of number 21.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
 Not including ABA games.
 Brad Nessler was the play by play guy. I like Brad Nessler, but it’s no wonder ABC decided to make Al Michaels call the Finals for the next two seasons when you realize that Nessler was their best option for the NBA Finals.
 Ironically, the 2004 Olympics were the only Olympics Duncan played in.
 Cousy, LeBron, West, Jordan, Pettit, Elgin
 One of these shoes, the Air Max Duncan II, had Velcro straps and a zipper. It’s like the pre-internet version of the Chef Curry’s only way worse.
 He has 15; Kobe and Garnett are tied for second with 12 each.
 The argument of where Duncan ranks all-time is pretty abbreviated here simply because I don’t want this article to be too long (even if it already is too long).
On November 4, 1948, the Minneapolis Lakers beat the Baltimore Bullets 84-72, winning their first game in the BAA. They went on to win the title that year, beating the Washington Capitols and did the same the next year in the NBA, beating the Syracuse Nationals. Even then, years before their move to Los Angeles, before the 24-second shot clock, before anybody cared about the sport of basketball and before the Los Angeles Lakers were a brand synonymous with success and stardom, they were winning.
Between November 4, 1948 and April 28, 2013, the Lakers missed the playoffs just five times. In those 65 years, they won 16 titles and were led by giants, both literally and figuratively. 23 Hall of Famers played for the team, many of them identified by just one name. Magic, Kareem, Kobe, Shaq, Wilt, Elgin. Even the guy who became the logo of the NBA, Jerry West, donned purple and gold. Their coaches doubled as a laundry list of the greatest; John Kundla, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, even Rudy Tomjanovich spent a year on the bench, however unsuccessful.
But after that fateful day in April of 2013, the day the Lakers were unceremoniously swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Spurs, putting the cap on a miserable season of inner turmoil, injuries and failed championship aspirations, the franchise has fallen off the mountaintop and faceplanted onto the rocks below.
Since then, the Lakers have endured their three worst seasons since moving to Los Angeles, each one worse than the last. Even so, we’ve been assured by the front office that help is coming. The Lakers have gone after Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency to try and get that help and each time they’ve been denied, the latter in embarrassing fashion. Instead of improving and trying to get back into the playoff race, the Lakers spent the past season parading a broken star through the league and letting him do whatever he wanted as if it was still his prime. Even if they were vindicated by a 60-point final game, keeping their top-3 protected pick and hopefully not damaging the psyche of D’Angelo Russell too much, the assumption was that, at bare minimum, the Lakers would try to improve again this summer. Even if there was no chance at all of signing Kevin Durant or Al Horford, the assumption was that there would at least be a meeting at which the front office would not further embarrass itself and perhaps set the stage for next season’s free agency bonanza.
Instead, as free agency arrived, the Lakers reached out to Timofey Mozgov. Exactly what Mozgov does for the Lakers outside of protect the rim, I have absolutely no idea. He was relegated to the bench during Cleveland’s championship run after failing to provide the same rebounding and defensive production he did the year before, but suddenly the Lakers have decided he’s worth $64 million over 4 years. They could not have come up with a worse deal had they spun a wheel to determine who to sign.
Even in a new cap environment, this deal is nonsensical. It’s not hard to justify previously unthinkable signings such as giving Luol Deng $72 million over 4 years or Jordan Clarkson $50 million over the same time period. Both are good signings at solid price tags. But Timofey Mozgov isn’t a proven veteran or a young kid with good aspirations for the future. He spent last season as the fourth center on a team with four capable centers, riding the bench throughout the postseason.
Perhaps Luke Walton envisions Mozgov as a poor man’s version of Andrew Bogut, that is if Bogut couldn’t finish a pick and roll, make a pass, play good defense or get a rebound. You know, all of the useful things Andrew Bogut does. More likely, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are both desperate to save their jobs by fulfilling a mandate to contend and somehow came to the conclusion that Timofey Mozgov would help get the Lakers to contend this season.
In any case, the real meaning of the Mozgov signing is that the shine has officially been rubbed off of the logo. Even if we knew this already, the signing makes it official. The Lakers aren’t a destination, they aren’t a franchise recognized globally as champions and they certainly are no longer synonymous with success and stardom. And yes, it’s possible to get it all back but it isn’t easy. Just ask the Knicks, who have spent the bulk of the century trying to get it all back after being contenders at minimum for most of their history.
Their fans, having been battered by years of being a laughingstock, by Isiah, Eddy Curry, Kurt Rambis and every miserable stop in between, will tell you that it isn’t all that easy to get it back. The Lakers are well down the road of incompetence and if they don’t turn around, it could be a while before they can get back to the top of that mountain.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
 Exactly how Mozgov helps the Lakers contend this year, I still have no idea but I assume they didn’t sign him for the back end of that contract.
In all of NBA history, no player has been discussed, dissected, put down or propped back up more than LeBron James. Christened as the next Jordan before graduating Saint Vincent-Saint Mary’s High School, as the Chosen One to lead Cleveland out of its never-ending misery before he was allowed to legally drink, LeBron James has, impossibly, lived up to expectation
His career has been a bumpy road, but after June 19, 2016 and a Game 7 to finish off a redemption arc that would make Jaime Lannister blush, LeBron James has finally, mercifully stepped above the noise and emerged as one of the titans in the history of professional basketball. Of course, we already knew that LeBron was one of the greatest. We saw it in 2007, when he singlehandedly carried the Cavaliers to the Finals with 48 points in a double overtime thriller in the Conference Finals against Detroit. We saw it in 2012, when he stepped onto the parquet floor in Boston and singlehandedly murdered the crowd, scoring 45 points and leading the Heat to the Finals and we saw it again in the 2012 and 2013 Finals, where he won two Finals MVPs and two championship rings.
Despite that, doubt lingered and the noise continued. The Decision lingered in the minds of many, even after The Return. To some, it was impossible to forgive and forget the 2011 Finals, when LeBron pulled off David Blaine’s disappearing act in the 4th quarter of multiple games. While a lot of the hate seemed to be grasping at straws, that doubt lingered for everyone. We wondered whether or not LeBron was a good teammate, whether or not he had David Blatt fired so that he could hire his buddy Ty Lue to run things, whether or not his real motive for coming back to Cleveland was so he run the franchise himself and whether or not his prime was past him. Through four games of the Finals, we were vindicated. LeBron wasn’t quite as overpowering as he had been before, his meddling in the front office was a disaster and he would likely orchestrate a breakup of this Cavs team by trading Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Or he would save them the trouble and leave himself. The Finals were merely a victory lap for the Warriors.
Then, a switch flipped within LeBron James and we got what we had wanted since christening him and deciding that he would be the one to get Cleveland back to the Promised Land. He pulled off the best three game run in NBA history, both by an individual and a team.
It culminated in a Game 7 for the ages and a majestic, soaring block that didn’t even seem human. The Warriors live off the idea that the ball is faster than the players, but in this case it wasn’t. LeBron James traversing half of the Oracle Arena floor in under two seconds to deny Andre Iguodala at the rim and keep the game tied at 89 was the moment Cleveland fans have been waiting for since December 27, 1964. Kyrie Irving’s 3-pointer a little less than a minute later ended a 52-year waiting period for good. Cleveland waited, on edge for the Other Shoe to drop; only it never did. Kevin Love played some of the best defense of his life to force a miss and stop the inevitable when switched onto Curry the next play and James sank a crucial free throw after missing the first with what looked to be a hurt wrist. Then the buzzer sounded and Cleveland held a trophy in its grasp for the first time since a cold December day a few months after the Gulf of Tonkin. At the end of it all, LeBron James led the series in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, earning a unanimous Finals MVP to match Stephen Curry’s unanimous regular season MVP.
Finally, after 13 years of endless noise and impossible expectation, LeBron James lived up to it and silenced the masses.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
In the 21st century, sports have been defined by numbers. From Moneyball to Moreyball, we’ve learned that the best way to analyze the game—be it baseball, basketball, football or anything in between—is by the numbers. Three is more than two, walks are equal to singles and adhering by these rules wins you championships. For the most part, gone are the days where coaches make decisions by gut and you can’t understand the game if you haven’t played it.
What makes Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, the most important basketball game since, well, maybe ever, so ironic is that none of those numbers really matter at this point. We have 48 minutes to decide who wins the NBA championship and in those 48 minutes, anything can happen. It’s the smallest of small sample sizes. Draymond Green is 7/24 from 3 in the Finals, but remember Game 3 against Portland when Green hit 8/12 3s? That could happen tomorrow night and so could any other normally preposterous outcome.
The last two games have been arguably the two best of LeBron’s entire career, putting up 41-8-11 in Game 6 to follow up a heroic 41-16-7 in Game 5. If LeBron finishes off Golden State with another game of this caliber, he could retire the next day and be universally considered the 2nd best player of all-time, having engineered the only Finals comeback down 3-1 in history against a record breaking Warriors team. He’s had a complete bag of tricks over the past few games; his jumper that everyone thought was gone returned at the perfect time. Coupled with an unprecedented ability to get to the basket, James is very literally unstoppable.
The Cavs have set him loose with an uptick in pick and rolls where Tristan Thompson’s borderline illegal screening can prevent Andre Iguodala from ducking under or fighting over, giving LeBron space to work with. If LeBron’s jumper is working, there really isn’t an answer to this for Golden State. Normally, you could have Draymond Green play far off of Thompson and tell Iguodala to switch. Knowing LeBron either won’t shoot or will most likely miss, Draymond can wait for his drive to try and swallow it up. But when he hits his jumper, that option is taken away. Without any appetizing ways to defend pick and rolls that feature LeBron, the Warriors will likely mix and match their coverages in Game 7, hoping that works instead.
It’s clear at this point that they can’t switch any action involving Curry, the Cavs have constantly thrown him into pick and rolls for just that purpose with great success. Switching Curry, especially onto LeBron, is conducive to easy buckets and the foul trouble that caused Curry (and his wife) to blow a gasket Thursday night. Golden State will likely trap both LeBron and Kyrie Irving sporadically on pick and rolls to try and slow them down but there isn’t much they can do on a possession-by-possession basis outside of hoping Andre Iguodala can fight through screens and slow down LeBron as he’s done in the past.
For most of Game 6, Iguodala looked like a grandmother walking through a church aisle. He couldn’t run comfortably, nor could he stand up straight. Although he played through it, he clearly wasn’t his normal self and it didn’t help that he had to guard LeBron James at his absolute best. Iguodala won the 2015 Finals MVP by forcing LeBron into inefficient shots with great 1-on-1 defense and he continued doing that over the first four games of these Finals. Then an internal switch flipped within James and he became Zeus reigning down thunder onto mere mortals. If Iguodala’s back isn’t healthy enough that he can at least make things tough for LeBron, the Warriors are in a lot of trouble.
Though Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have both done solid jobs guarding LeBron off switches and in cross match situations during the series, having one of them match up against him permanently leaves holes in other parts of the court. Thompson is needed to subdue Kyrie Irving; if he guards James then that job is left up to Curry, which is exactly what the Cavs want. If Draymond does it then it’s up to Iguodala to keep Tristan Thompson off the offensive boards, a job he isn’t up for when fully healthy, let alone when he’s gimpy. If Iguodala gets to the point where he can’t play, things get even worse. The Cavs have targeted traditional centers like Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao in pick and rolls with great success , Leandro Barbosa is a defensive liability and while Shaun Livingston is a decent option defensively, he does hurt their spacing offensively so it would be tough for the Warriors to have him on the floor during crunch time.
Harrison Barnes’ confidence is another x-factor for Golden State. After an abysmal 2/14 showing in Game 5, the Cavs decided to treat Barnes like Tony Allen. Despite him having shot fairly well over the season, he was 0/8 in Game 6 on mostly wide open shots. That doesn’t even count the number of looks Barnes passed up when there was no defender near him. Golden State’s Death Lineup is so good because all five players can shoot at least passably well and, most of the time, they can switch anything. If Barnes isn’t knocking down wide open 3s, then the Death Lineup goes from one of the best five-man groups ever to fairly average.
The biggest thing for the Warriors in this game is the most obvious: they need their superstars to play at their highest level. Curry hasn’t shot poorly in this series, he’s at 43.1 percent from 3, but he also hasn’t been quite at the level he was at during the regular season. If Kevin Love is on the floor, the Warriors need to go at him in pick and rolls until Ty Lue decides he can’t be on the floor anymore. When there are pick and rolls involving Tristan Thompson, Curry needs to take advantage of the Cavs switching. Thompson has done a great job containing Curry so far in the series and that can’t continue if Golden State is to win. All season, Curry has taken advantage of big men switching with stepback 3s and easy drives to the hoop. He should be able to do both against Thompson. If Curry still can’t get going with Thompson switched, the Warriors should go to Draymond Green in the post with Kyrie Irving switched on him. From there, they can get into some of their signature sets, such as Curry and Klay Thompson getting open off of split cuts or Green can simply back down a bad defender in Irving.
It’s also been floated that Steve Kerr should isolate Curry on Irving more often. While this has been successful during the series and Kerr should go take advantage of the matchup, the Warriors should avoid reverting back to what the offense they ran under Mark Jackson. They got here by passing, cutting and screening and they shouldn’t go away from that in their most important game of the season. Even if they isolate Curry more often than they have been doing, the Warriors need to be moving and screening for each other off ball, even if they know the ball isn’t coming to them. A big part of the reason their offense has looked out of sorts is in the past few games is a lack of movement off the ball. If nothing else, it will keep the defense occupied so they struggle to find help when Curry drives.
Strategy aside, there’s always a chance that Curry or Klay Thompson go nuclear. If one or both of them does, there’s nothing Cleveland can do. Klay saved Golden State’s season in Game 6 against OKC by hitting shots that most players couldn’t dream of. While both have seen heat checks in this series, neither has carried the Warriors to a win. It may come down to something as simple as Curry just being due for an insane performance.
This could also be the game for Draymond Green. In addition to turning into a pro wrestling villain, Green has also struggled for a lot of this series. Tristan Thompson has dominated him on the boards and he hasn’t been able to get downhill in transition, distribute or do any number of little things that he excels at. In December, when I was at the Warriors-Celtics double-OT game, what stood out to me was the way that Draymond just wouldn’t let them lose. He went for 24-11-8 with 5 steals and 5 blocks that night, keeping Golden State in it when they were on the road with a raucous crowd, Klay Thompson was out and Stephen Curry wasn’t really hitting his shots. He was not letting them lose that game no matter what. It was the quintessential alpha dog performance. If that Draymond shows up, the one that says “F**k you, we’re not losing this basketball game and I’m going to make sure of it”, the Warriors are going to win.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
 I was trying to think what could be arguably more important than this and here’s what I came up with: Game 6 of the 2013 Finals (LeBron’s legacy on the line), Game 7 of the 2010 Finals (Lakers/Celtics, Kobe, Pierce, KG, Ray Allen legacies on the line), Games 6 and 7 of the 2002 WCF (Kobe, Shaq, David Stern and C-Webb with legacies on the line), Game 7 of the 1984 Finals (Bird and Magic’s legacies on the line, league’s popularity grows immensely as result of series), Game 7 of the 1974 Finals (If Milwaukee wins, Kareem is the defacto 2nd best player ever and it isn’t close), Game 7 of the 1969 Finals (Russell’s undefeated Game 7 streak on the line, Wilt tarnishes his legacy by getting benched in the 4th quarter by Butch van Breda Kloff, West’s best chance to beat Boston in the Finals) and the 1950 game between Fort Wayne and Minneapolis that ended 19-18, leading Danny Biasone to invent the shot clock. That being said, I don’t think any of those are definitively important than this. I have it as a 3-way tie between this game, 1984 Game 7 and 1969 Game 7. Fort Wayne-Minneapolis and Game 7 1974 would make it a 5-way tie, but it didn’t directly lead to Biasone inventing the shot clock, it was only the largest in a number of contributing factors and Kareem was the only top-10 player or borderline top-10 player whose legacy really would have been affected by the outcome of the ’74 Finals given that Havlicek was 33, Robertson was 35 and Cowens is pretty far outside the top-10.
 Except, of course, in this series.
 Love being pulled early in Game 6 after getting into foul trouble hurt the Warriors a lot. Love’s defense has been terrible and given his uninspiring offense, I would start Richard Jefferson in Game 7 if I was Ty Lue. I also can’t believe I’m writing that because 2 months ago I was tweeting about how dumb it was that Ty Lue was playing Jefferson at all.
 With Thompson on Curry, this action will take him out of his comfort zone. The Warriors should go to it regularly when they get that switch.
 It’s somewhat shocking that the Warriors lasted as long as they did without people finding a reason to hate them. They’ve been juggernauts for 2 seasons and it took until this year’s Western Conference Finals for people to start hating them. I’m pretty sure that’s a record in the Twitter Era.
This NBA season has seen 1,309 games played. Between four and seven games are left and we’re on the brink of history. If the Warriors finish things off, then they become the consensus Greatest Team Ever. If Cleveland pulls off the upset, LeBron James becomes the guy who ended the city’s walk through misery. As nice as that second option sounds for the city of Cleveland, let’s face the truth here: the Cavs have no shot in this series.
That’s right, no shot. You have a better chance of seeing the Vermont Lake Monsters hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy than the Cavs do of winning this series. Hell, there’s a better chance of the Atlanta Braves hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy than the Cavs do of winning this series. The Cavs are a good team, but they can’t match Golden State. They simply don’t have the personnel. Try putting yourself in Tyronn Lue’s shoes and answering some of these questions.
Question 1: Who guards Stephen Curry?
There’s no right answer to this for the Cavs. Conventional wisdom says to leave Kyrie Irving on him but Irving isn’t a good enough defender to stay with Curry. Among Cavs players in their regular rotation, Irving has the worst defensive rating in the playoffs. That’s not inconsistent with what we already know about Irving as a defender. If he guards Curry, the MVP will have free reign to roast Kyrie in pick and rolls or even just in isolation where Irving has allowed 1.15 PPP these playoffs.
If not Irving, then who? J.R. Smith has improved vastly on the defensive end this season, but if you put him on Curry than Irving is on Klay Thompson. Lue could really roll the dice and go with LeBron, hiding Irving on Harrison Barnes, but that would mean LeBron expanding lots of energy on defense. We saw the adverse effects of that when Curry guarded Russell Westbrook in the Conference Finals, plus there’s no guarantee that Curry wouldn’t treat LeBron the way he does all other big men and shake him off with ease.
The other option is to start Iman Shumpert or Matthew Dellavedova, having either Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson come off the bench depending on what Lue prefers. Those are the Cavs’ best two options in terms of defending Curry but there are drawbacks. While both Shumpert and Dellavedova are solid offensively, neither brings a lot to the table and both are easy for the Warriors to help off of. Additionally, it would require LeBron to start at power forward which he may not want plus it would create a media frenzy if Love were to come off the bench.
Ultimately I think the last option, with Shumpert starting for Love, is the best chance for Cleveland, especially if they need to match up against Golden State’s Death Lineup. Shumpert can guard Curry, Smith can guard Klay and Irving can hide on Barnes or Iguodala if the Warriors start him. Love coming off the bench also makes sense. He would be more involved and better utilized playing against Golden State’s bench units plus he would be less exploitable defensively. That being said…
How are the Cavs going to guard a pick and roll involving Irving, Love or Channing Frye?
Those three players have been great for the Cavs this season and even better in the playoffs. Irving is averaging 24.3 points and 5.1 assists these playoffs and Love is averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds. Frye is shooting the lights out off the bench with an 81.8 effective field goal percentage and 23.9 PER. The Cavs need that production, badly. Without it, they’re stuck in the same spot as last season’s Finals. However, none of those three players are reliable defensively. Remember how the Warriors went out of their way to exploit Enes Kanter against OKC, rendering him virtually unplayable? They’ll try and do the same with Kevin Love and Channing Frye knowing that Cleveland stands no chance switching a pick and roll with either of them. The same goes for Irving.
Defensively, it’s going to be tough for Cleveland to weather the storm with any of those three on the floor. Offensively, it’s going to be impossible to score without any of them. The Cavs may have to win a shootout with the best shooting team in the league and maybe ever to win this series.
Those questions aren’t the only things crippling Cleveland’s chances in this series. They’ve shot incredibly in these playoffs with a 43.4 percent mark from 3 that would have led the league in the regular season but that’s close to impossible for them to keep up. Simple regression theory says that Cleveland’s going to have a rude awakening in terms of shooting given that they shot a comparatively low 36.3 percent from beyond the arc over an 82-game regular season. Channing Frye can’t keep shooting like Larry Bird in the ’86 3-point contest and Iman Shumpert can’t keep shooting like Glen Rice.
That’s not to say they’re a bad shooting team either. Frye is going to shoot well and be a solid offensive player, as are Irving, Love and J.R. Smith. But they can’t keep it up at the level they’re currently shooting.
Cleveland’s best lineup in the playoffs by Net Rating has been Dellavedova/Shumpert/Richard Jefferson/LeBron/Frye. While that’s a solid combination and the Cavs are at their best when LeBron is at the 4, that lineup isn’t sustaining a +46.6 net rating against Golden State. Jefferson and Frye are going to be exploited defensively and there isn’t enough shooting on the wings. That lineup also dominated Toronto by running the exact same play over and over.
In Game 6, the Raptors finally stopped this play by going under on Matthew Dellavedova. The Warriors’ coaching staff is smart enough to avoid getting fooled by the same play time and time again.
Golden State has every advantage in this series. They crushed Cleveland with the Death Lineup last season and after revitalization in Games 5-7 against the Thunder, it’s going to wreak havoc again. Whether the Warriors start Barnes, Iguodala or both is an interesting dilemma, but it’s not going to decide the series. Kerr likely going to go with whichever option allows Iguodala’s minutes to match up with LeBron’s the best. Iguodala worked wonders last season defending LeBron and although James is going to average 35 points and win a game by himself for Cleveland, that’s not going to faze Golden State. This is a battle-tested team that just won an all-out war against the Thunder. Cleveland’s toughest competition thus far has been Toronto in a series that never felt close, even when it was tied 2-2. This series won’t even be as close as that one.
Warriors in 5.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
 Assuming my math is correct.
 The thought of winning this series might be the 5th greatest sports moment in the history of the city.
 Okay, fine. That’s impossible.
 Shumpert shot 29.5 percent from 3 in the regular season and is shooting 47.4 percent from 3 in the playoffs. It’s close to impossible that his playoff shooting is sustainable.
 Picture per HalfCourtHoops on Twitter.
With a little over 12 hours to reflect on one of the most monumental playoff series that has ever been played, it seems no less monumental than it did while unfolding. This Conference Finals was more than a series; it was a historical referendum on all parties involved: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, the 2008-2016 Oklahoma City Thunder and even the era as a whole.
Through 3 quarters, the Thunder were beating Golden State in rebounds, points in the paint, 2nd chance points, free throw attempts, turnovers and field goal attempts. They found themselves staring at an 11 point hole. The decisive third quarter, which featured a 29-12 Golden State evisceration of Oklahoma City, saw the Warriors go back to their roots and let Steph be Steph. Curry scored 9 points in the quarter and 36 in the game, looking himself in a series that often saw him neutralized by the towering figure of Steven Adams and the pterodactyl-esque wingspan of Kevin Durant off of OKC’s ambitious pick and roll switches. In the deciding Game 7, Curry finally punished the Thunder for daring to guard him with a big, crossing over, stepping back and firing at will, reigning down a parade of 3s over the Thunder. It was the performance the Warriors needed from Curry, who had struggled all series amid speculation of injury, and the MVP stepped up to the task.
After that third quarter, you knew. The Thunder had clung to a six-point halftime lead that felt as if it should have been bigger after outplaying, no, dominating, the Warriors for the first 24 minutes and the Thunder threw the lead away as easily as Andy Reid screws up the clock. When Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa came into the game and actually played well for Golden State with Varejao notching two assists and two points in less than 2 minutes, you knew that this was the Warriors’ night. Even when Durant tried to take matters into his own hands and brought the Thunder back within four you knew. Golden State’s win probability was still 93.2 percent, per InPredict. The very next play, Serge Ibaka fouled Curry on a 3-point attempt and the game was sealed.
Historically, it’s tough to place this series other than to say it was one of the best ever. If the Warriors beat Cleveland in the Finals, than this is the three game stretch that proved the Warriors were one of the greatest teams ever. If it turns into a dynasty than Game 7 is the defining game of that dynasty. Either way, it’s a career-defining game for Curry and Game 6 is the same for Thompson. If Durant leaves, than this is the three game stretch that caused him to do so. If he returns, than it’s the three game stretch that motivated him to do so and if the Thunder win next year’s championship, than it’s the three game stretch that motivated them to do so.
As of now, it seems unlikely that he’ll leave. The Thunder was as close as it’s ever been this season and leaving now would be like passing out 10 feet before the finish line. Other than Golden State, no other team gives Durant a better shot at winning a title. Sure, Pat Riley or Gregg Popovich could swoop in and steal him away, but what motivation does he have to leave? Signing a 1+1 deal with and opting out after next year makes too much sense. That way, Durant times his free agency with Westbrook’s and he maximizes his salary because the cap is rocketing up again after next season.
This series could ultimately prove more important to the Thunder than to the Warriors. Durant’s free agency along with the fact that this core hasn’t won a championship means that this series was Durant and Westbrook’s chance to separate themselves from that Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley group historically. They were at the finish line, and then the Warriors stepped on the gas and stole the race. If the Thunder fall short again next season, that might be it for this core.
This was an era-defining series. The Warriors proved yet again that they’re one of the best teams we’ve ever seen. The Thunder proved yet again that they can’t get over the finish line. When it’s all said and done, that’s how we’ll look at this series.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
 And it’s not like Durant would go to the team that just beat him. That’s not something you do as an all-time great basketball player.