Lonzo Ball said the Lakers had a plan, but he did not do that

NEW YORK — After seeing the Los Angeles Lakers trade D’Angelo Russell on Tuesday, Lonzo Ball says he believes Magic Johnson has “a plan.”

Whether that includes drafting Ball with the second overall pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night, Ball said he is making no assumptions despite the fact that most believe he will be a Laker.

“You know, the Lakers have a plan,” Ball said when asked whether he thought the Russell trade was to make room for him to play point guard. “So whatever that is, we will see whatever that is in the future.”

Speaking at media availability for draft prospects, Ball deftly handled every question that came his way with straightforward answers, in stark contrast to his father, LaVar, who has made headlines with many of his eye-catching comments.

Despite the fact that he said he has met with only the Lakers during the pre-draft process, the UCLA point guard stuck to the script that he does not know whether Johnson will make his dream come true of becoming a Los Angeles Laker.

“It will mean a lot to play for my hometown [team] and learn from the best point guard ever,” Ball said of Johnson, the team’s president of basketball operations. “Yeah that’s crazy to me [if it happens]. Magic Johnson is the best point guard ever. … Words [couldn't] describe that.”

Ball said the Lakers told him that they would embrace his outspoken father as well if they pick him.

“They were open-armed and said they loved my dad,” Ball said when asked whether the Lakers had any concerns about LaVar Ball. “So I left it at that.”

On Tuesday, the Lakers agreed to trade Russell, their second overall pick from the 2015 draft, and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick in Thursday’s draft. Russell, 21, averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists this past season.

The trade not only clears cap space for the Lakers to pursue at least one max free agent next summer but it would also appear to pave the way for Ball to come in and run point for coach Luke Walton.

Wearing his Big Baller Brand shirt, Ball said he has a “clean” suit picked out that does not have the “BBB” logo on it to wear for Thursday night. Ball said his Big Baller Brand shoes will be out in November.

Ball, who grew up a Lakers fan watching Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and recently met Bryant for a few minutes while the two were working with ESPN, hopes he will be adding a Lakers cap to his suit after the second pick is announced.

“I can’t tell the future,” Ball said of why he kept saying he isn’t sure who will draft him. “I don’t know where I am going.”

“I know he is going to be happy,” Ball added of his father’s reaction once he will be drafted. “He will be smiling, I will be smiling, get the hat and go from there.”

The source said that the knight’s pursuit of Jimmy Butler, Paul George encountered obstacles

The Cleveland Cavaliers remain seriously interested in trading for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or Indiana’s Paul George, but have encountered significant obstacles on both fronts, according to league sources.

Sources said Tuesday that the Cavaliers have been notified that Butler hopes to stay with the Bulls and would be reluctant to commit his long-term future to Cleveland. Butler, sources said, remains intent on trying to lead the Bulls back to Eastern Conference prominence.

 

Paul George
When it comes to George, meanwhile, ESPN reported earlier Tuesday that the Indiana Pacers have commenced trade talks with the Los Angeles Lakers, who overwhelmingly rank as his preferred destination as his own free agency looms in the summer of 2018.

One option for the the Lakers, sources say, is trying to sell the Pacers on a trade package headlined by the 27th pick — acquired as part of an agreed-to deal with Brooklyn on Tuesday — and 28th overall picks in Thursday night’s draft in addition to players such as forward Julius Randle and guard Jordan Clarkson. Indiana, meanwhile, continues to try to pry away Thursday’s No. 2 overall pick despite L.A.’s well-chronicled determination to keep it off limits.

Sources say that David Griffin, in his final few days as Cavaliers general manager, aggressively pursued trades for both Butler and George, seeking to acquire an elite two-way player in the wake of Cleveland’s 4-1 NBA Finals defeat inflicted by the Golden State Warriors.

But Griffin and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert abruptly announced Monday night that they were parting ways, just three days before the Draft and less than two weeks before the June 30 expiration of Griffin’s contract.

To land either Butler or George, sources say, Cleveland knows it would have to assemble a three-team (or more) trade — likely costing them All-Star forward Kevin Love — to manufacture the top-five draft pick Chicago and Indiana are known to covet in exchange for surrendering their respective best players.

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst reported Monday night that Gilbert himself, alongside Cavaliers assistant general manager Koby Altman, would continue to aggressively pursue upgrades to the roster as Cleveland enters the final season James is under contract.

But sacrificing Love to acquire Butler or George — even for a historically bold team like the Cavaliers — would be risky if neither player is prepared to make a long-term commitment to the franchise.

George has been widely expected since the All-Star break in February to do anything he can to land with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, while Butler could become a free agent as early as July 2019.

Kevin Durant refused to choose, re-signed with the Warriors

OAKLAND, Calif. — Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant will decline his player option for the 2017-18 season and technically become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but he will re-sign with the team, league sources tell ESPN.

The 2017 NBA Finals MVP will turn down a player-option salary of approximately $28 million to momentarily hit free agency with the intentions of taking less than the max he’s eligible for as a 10-year veteran. This is in order to improve the Warriors’ chances of re-signing reserve stud Andre Iguodala, league sources told ESPN.

 

Kevin Durant

By Durant taking about $4 million less than his max next year and waiting to get his long-term extension for at least another season, the Warriors would be able to use their Bird rights on an Iguodala deal that is far more comparable to what he’d see on the open market.

All signs, according to sources, point to Durant signing another one-plus-one pact, which carries a player-option at the end.

With Durant opting to sacrifice, according to league sources, the Warriors would not need to create room under the cap to re-sign him and thus would not need to renounce their rights to any of their other free agents.

Durant led the Warriors to their second championship in the last three years and in the process, captured his first. The Hamptons 5 — consisting of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Draymond Green and Durant, who all met together last summer during the free-agency recruiting period — has a pathway of remaining intact.

The 6-11 forward has said on multiple occasions that he intends to stay with the Warriors for many years, and he has put roots down in the Bay Area both personally and professionally.

Durant and business partner Rich Kleiman have set up their business, the Durant Company, in the Bay Area. He has forged partnerships with California-based companies such as YouTube, Acorns and Postmates. In a New York Times profile this spring, Durant revealed that he is in business with Silicon Valley “super angel” investor Ronald Conway and consulting with Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Lonzo Ball once again worked for the Lakers, showing the training program

With the NBA draft less than a week away, Lonzo Ball worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers for the second time on Friday to give them an up-close look at his training regimen and work ethic.

Questions were raised about Ball’s conditioning after his first workout for the Lakers, and the former UCLA star even acknowledged that the drills made him tired.

At an unspecified location in the Los Angeles area near his home, Ball did his normal on-court routine, ran hills and lifted weights, showing the team’s brass how he conditions and getting some face-to-face time. Ball’s outspoken father, LaVar Ball, who had not been invited to Lonzo’s first workout at the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo on June 7, was present for Friday’s workout.

According to Spectrum Sports Net, Magic Johnson, president of basketball operations, and general manager Rob Pelinka were the only representatives of the Lakers to attend Friday’s workout.

A source told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that Friday’s workout was “solid.”

LaVar Ball has been vocal about his desire for his son to play for the Lakers, and he previously has lobbied for the match.

“Team-wise, the Lakers are a better fit,” he said after Lonzo’s first workout. “They really don’t have a leader. Boston already went to the playoffs. They have a leader.”

Warrior’s Draymond Green Tuo’s T-shirt Knight

The NBA Finals might be finished, but the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are still providing entertainment by feeding into their rivalry.

The latest flare-up came Thursday when Draymond Green wore a T-shirt to the Warriors’ championship parade mocking the Cavs for only going five games with the Warriors in the Finals before succumbing 4-1.

The T-shirt took the logo for Quicken Loans — Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s company and the title sponsor for the Cavs’ home arena — and changed the text to “Quickie” and also featured the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“The Q, that’s what’s those guys’ arena is called, and we got them out of here quick with the trophy,” Green explained to NBC Sports Bay Area. “Quickie.”

Green said the T-shirt was his idea, but that Warriors director of coaching Nick U’Ren was the man responsible for the execution.

“We actually got them made in Cleveland. How about that?” Green said.

It did not take LeBron James long to respond on Instagram:

James’ post quickly accumulated thousands of likes, including from teammates Tristan Thompson and JR Smith and other stars like Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden.

After lifting his self-imposed social media blackout now that the postseason is over, James was very active on his Instagram account the past couple of days, showing off a freshly shorn haircut in a video he posted of himself listening to music while working out in his gym.

James’ hairline gave Green ammunition to fire back once again on his own Instagram account:

If you thought you’d heard the last from the Warriors and Cavs now that the “threematch” has been settled, think again.

Even Warriors coach Steve Kerr took note of Green’s shirt. During the Warriors’ parade on Thursday, Kerr pointed out “Sometimes I get tired of doing the humble thing, I want to be more like Draymond. Look at his shirt, I love Draymond.”

At a rally after the parade, Green mocked James’ contention that he had never played for a superteam.

“You talk about superteams this, superteam that. ‘I never played on a super team.’ You started the superteam bro!”

James teamed up with All Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat to win his first championship in 2012. Critics have called the Warriors a superteam with the addition of Kevin Durant last year.

Kevin Durant says he thinks Kevin Owen is better than Alan Iverson

Kevin Durant has no problem displaying his pride in being from the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, but he said he thinks Kyrie Irving is greater than one DMV legend and NBA Hall of Famer.

“Kyrie is better than [Allen Iverson] to me,” Durant said of the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard while appearing on “The Bill Simmons Podcast.”
Is Kyrie Irving better than Allen Iverson Kevin Durant sure thinks so
“I’m going from like skill for skill. His handle is better,” Durant continued in praising Irving. “We might have to cut that out — I don’t want no problems with A.I. Y’all might have to cut that one. I don’t want that to get out. I’m just saying I feel like Kyrie got more skill.”

Durant’s comments come after his team, the Golden State Warriors, pulled off a five-game NBA Finals victory over Irving’s Cavs.

“I was telling some of my friends after Game 2, I was like, Kyrie, he just makes you happy when you watch him play,” Durant said on the podcast. “You just smile when you watch him play, because for somebody to be that skilled, you know he had to work tirelessly at it. The stuff he has in his package is next-level stuff that you can try to teach your kids to do it, but you’ll never be able to do it.”

At 6-foot-2, Irving is listed as being two inches taller than Iverson. What Irving can do to defenders despite his slighter frame continues to impress Durant.

“I’ve never seen nobody block [Irving's] layup, and he’s 6-2. I’ve never seen one person pin his layup on the glass, not one. Because the spin he got on it and he don’t got to look at it,” Durant said. “I’ve got so much respect for him because I know how much work he has to put in to be that good.”

In six years in the NBA, Irving is averaging 21.6 points, 5.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game, as compared to Iverson’s career averages of 26.7 points, 6.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds over 14 years. Irving also has one NBA championship to Iverson’s zero, though Iverson was named MVP in 2001.

LeBron James did not apologize, including his final record

LeBron James 23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers

Final question, final answer, final postgame news conference of these NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving kept going Monday night, the last night of the season, the night the Cleveland Cavaliers were no longer the defending champions. And all he wanted to talk about was his teammate LeBron James.

Kyrie on LeBron. Here you go, unedited and uninterrupted:

“Man, that guy is — I think that some people would say that he’s on the toe of — like he’s on the line of greatness. But that guy is way over. Man, he’s freaking awesome. As a student of the game, it would be a disservice to myself if I didn’t try to learn as much as possible while I’m playing with this guy. Every single day demanding more out of himself, demanding more out of us, the true testament of a consummate professional. And understanding how things work, not only just in the game but off the court, things that matter, just taking care of your body, understanding the magnitude of what the goal is at hand and what steps it takes in order to achieve that goal.

“You can’t skip any steps. And that was one thing that I came to understand, because as a young player, you want everything to happen right now. And ‘Bron’s been in this league for a while now, and he’s seen every which way from on the court, to off the court, to dealing with some of you guys, to dealing with the whole world of just choosing a side. Whether you want to believe in him or not, he’s still coming.

“And that’s the type of guy that I want to be with every single time I’m going to war, because I know what to expect, and you stand your ground, too, with a leader like that. You don’t want to take a step back. You move to the front line with a guy like that, and you want to bring your game up to another level.

“That’s what I’m going to continue to do, because I know that if we continue to be with one another and keep utilizing one another, man, the sky’s the limit. So, I’ve learned a lot and I will continue to, and I couldn’t be more proud of that guy. He left it all out there on the floor, and to average a triple-double in the freaking Finals, man, add that to the LeBron long list that everyone keeps forgetting.”

No player in NBA annals has ever averaged a triple-double in the Finals except James, who parlayed a 41-point, 13-rebound night in Game 5 into 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game over two weeks of superb and sublime basketball that left him with nothing to apologize for and nothing to be ashamed about, including his NBA Finals ledger.

If you spend one minute knocking James for falling to 3-5 in the Finals, you don’t merely know nothing about basketball — you know nothing about sports.

Memo to TV and radio brethren: If you spend one segment eviscerating James’ legacy, may your brain be infested with the fleas of a thousand feral cats.

Kevin Durant is king today, and the Golden State Warriors are deserving NBA champions again. Yet, moments after the confetti stopped falling in Oakland, California, the ‘Bron-Lost-the-Big-One-Again chatter began to grow in disturbing numbers and volume on social media. This was not only low-hanging fruit. It was fermented and rotten, and it smelled worse than Zaza Pachulia’s practice socks. This is the most tired angle of the Finals and has nothing to do with reality. When you look at his numbers, it is actually more interesting, in fact, to break down why Rihanna bailed on the Cavs in their most vulnerable moments.

There was but one time to knock James in the Finals: 2011. He came up small in big moments and repeatedly disappeared in the fourth quarter of a series the Dallas Mavericks somehow stole from Miami. He was even asked by a columnist if he choked during the series, and by the end every bitter soul outside of South Beach rejoiced gleefully that Mr. Decision had gotten what was coming to him. Since then, James had epiphanies on and off the court and stopped worrying about what others thought about his game and concentrated on what he could do about it. And he’s done nothing but brilliantly take teams into June since.

Fact: Except for Games 5-7 against Golden State last year, when James and Irving remarkably delivered the Cavaliers their first title and Cleveland its first major sports title in 52 years, he played as well as he ever has on the league’s biggest stage.

Fact: This Cleveland team was by far the best Cavaliers team he ever played on, better than last year’s NBA champion. James wasn’t undone by his roster as much as the fact that the team with the best regular-season record in the history of the NBA a year ago went out and got the second-best player in the league. The Warriors won this title last July on Long Island, New York, as much as they won it Monday night in Oakland, recruiting Durant to join their forces as if he were a 17-year-old five-star recruit and they were John Calipari. Kyle Korver was a good pickup, but he was never going to compare to picking up Durant in the offseason.

Fact: James has been to two more NBA Finals than Michael Jordan, and he still has as many championships as Larry Bird, two more than Julius Erving, one more than Isiah Thomas and three more than Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton.

Fact: Losing five Finals is not a bad thing, America. James joins select company again (Jerry West and Elgin Baylor) as players to lose five or more Finals. If there were All-Time NBA teams, West and Baylor arguably do no worse than making that third starting five. No one talks derisively about Magic Johnson losing four of the nine Finals he played in, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar losing four of the 10 he played in. West, in fact, was 1-8 in the Finals. No one is knocking Zeke from Cabin Creek’s legacy today. And if they are, West is looking for them to punch them in the teeth.

Fact: Most people reading this are, like me, 0-0 in the NBA Finals — for eternity. They will never get to play in one, let alone lose five. Knocking James is like never having acted in more than a school play and then eviscerating Meryl Streep for winning just three Oscars despite being nominated for a record 20. You can hear a faux disgruntled TV panelist now: “Meryl don’t have that killer instinct on the red carpet. How can you go 3-17 against the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences? Pathetic.”

Fact: It’s frankly amazing that James has been to seven straight Finals with two different teams and eight Finals altogether. The 2007 Cavaliers team that James led to the Finals at just 22 years old is still one of the least overwhelming Eastern Conference champion rosters in NBA history. Anderson Varejao started. Daniel “Boobie” Gibson and Damon Jones played important minutes.

Fact: If James retired today, at minimum he’d go down as one of the three to five greatest players in the history of the game. Pay no attention to the yammering anti-‘Bron crowd. You’ll find that the people who use James’ Finals record to define his legacy as a player are often the same people with other misguided opinions about sports and life. Many of these misguided souls, in fact, took the Titanic over the iceberg in ’12 and Michael Spinks over Mike Tyson in ’88. And while it may be too much to wish them all to be set afire and then have the flames put out with golf shoes, the least they can do is shut their pieholes and let ‘Bron be. James is more interested in what Irving said than what any of us will say.

“Well, for me personally, I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” James said Monday night. “So for me personally I have nothing to be — I have no reason to put my head down. I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.

“So it would be the same if you feel like you wrote the best column of your life and somebody picked another one over you. That’s — how would you feel? You know, so you wouldn’t hold your head down, but you would be like, OK, it’s just not my time.”

At the least, James is at peace with his own performance in these Finals and learned one of life’s best lessons: It’s not his job to worry about what others think about him; it’s his job to worry about what he thinks about himself.

How does the Warriors win the championship and how the NBA opponents compete

As the Golden State Warriors sat in their locker room a year ago, digesting the final loss of the worst collapse in NBA history, Andre Iguodala stood and said he wanted to address the group. Iguodala rarely does this, according to several members of the team. Everyone stopped.

Iguodala insisted they would recover. He mentioned that the San Antonio Spurs had never repeated as champions, a tidbit Warriors coach Steve Kerr, himself a former Spurs player, had mentioned often to underline the difficulty of last season’s challenge. If the team responded the right way, Iguodala said, they could put themselves in position to chase several titles — and wash away the sting from this loss.

Some in the room thought Iguodala might have been hinting at the potential signing of Kevin Durant, though Iguodala never uttered his name or directly discussed free agency, sources said. They glanced at Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, two players who would almost certainly be elsewhere if Durant joined.

Durant joined the team, of course, and the Warriors are champions again after vaporizing the competition over an unprecedented 16-1 rampage through the playoffs, capping the NBA Finals with a 129-120 win over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday to take back the crown in five games.

In the end, they are exactly the team the league expected and feared: the best offensive team ever, and the league’s stingiest defense over the regular season and postseason combined. Aside from an embarrassing season-opening loss to the Spurs, there was almost no drama — no angst over touches, no tense players-only meeting, no slow start. They gelled fast, and blitzed everyone.

“I don’t feel like I sacrificed at all,” Klay Thompson told ESPN.com last week. “I’d rather be a part of something that could leave a legacy. There is more to basketball than getting yours, or being the guy. I hope I do this for a long time for the Warriors.”

The Warriors were never worried about integrating Durant on the court. “This was not getting an isolation guy who needs the ball in his hands,” Kerr told ESPN.com in Cleveland. “He loves moving without the ball. He loves passing. He loves running the floor. He fit in to our system perfectly. We lost some key guys to get him, but you are talking about the second-best player in the world. You don’t even think about it. You think, basically, it’s a miracle: ‘Holy s—, we are getting KD to this team.’”

Team officials like to say that in a way, adding Durant was easier in basketball terms than mixing in LeBron James would have been.

They fretted a bit about how Durant would transition into their culture, and how he would get along with Curry. They did not know each other well. At a team dinner after their fourth preseason game, in Denver, Durant and Curry ended up at the same table. Players and coaches gradually filtered out, but the two stars sipped wine long into the night. Team officials watched, happy the two were getting past the awkward early stages of any friendship.

“We just talked about life,” Durant told ESPN.com. “When you get a good bond with someone, you can talk for hours.”

Five days later at a dinner in Las Vegas, after an exhibition game there, Durant approached Bruce Fraser, an assistant coach, and revealed why he came to Golden State, they both recalled. He didn’t need a championship, Durant told Fraser, though of course he hoped to win one. He wanted a new experience, and from afar in Oklahoma City, the Warriors’ culture looked appealing.We only peeled the first layer
After a month, Durant was ready to offer an early conclusion: “It’s even better than I thought,” he told Fraser.

“I came here to have fun,” Durant told ESPN.com before Game 4. “I wanted to be one of the guys. Right away, they didn’t treat me like I was ‘KD,’ or act like they wanted me to be a kind of vocal leader. I was happy from Day 1.”

Even if the basketball fit were to prove more troublesome than expected, Durant was obviously worth it. “We all felt we needed some fresh blood anyway,” Kerr said. “Getting to the Finals a third year in a row is so difficult emotionally.”

The basketball fit was not troublesome. The coaches added more new plays for David West than for Durant, Kerr said. They only had to break Durant from some of the habits he learned in Oklahoma City’s more stagnant system. On fast breaks, Durant would run to the corner and stand there. The Warriors taught him to keep moving if he didn’t get the ball right away, slash inside, and set screens for Curry or Thompson.

Fraser ran him through basic give-and-go drills. After offensive rebounds, Durant learned to slam Curry and Thompson’s defenders with picks instead of floating out to the 3-point arc.

“I was used to waiting around for the ball to come to me,” Durant said. By the end of training camp, he had those things down.

“It was pretty seamless,” Thompson said.

There were hiccups, of course. Curry agitated for more pick-and-rolls after taking only 11 shots in a dispiriting fall-from-ahead loss in Cleveland. Twelve days later, Green yelled at Durant for freezing the offense in crunch time of a loss against Memphis. Amid what passed for drama, the Warriors were 31-6.

“Those were basically the only two times we had anything to talk about as a team,” Kerr said. Kerr recalibrated the offense to feature more pick-and-rolls for Curry. The team’s passes per game ticked up in mid-January after falling into a rut in the prior six weeks.

“What makes our team dynamic is Steph using high screens,” Kerr said. “We should have been doing more of that around Christmas. We basically told Steph, ‘Just be you again. KD is going to get 25 no matter what.’”

The NBA has had super-teams before, but none quite like this. The Warriors boast four All-NBA-level players age 29 or younger. Three of them rank among the 10 greatest shooters ever; they are all lethal away from the ball. The fourth, Green, is more initiator than finisher, and ranks as a generational defensive player.

The only-one-ball problem that caused growing pains with the Miami Heat was never going to be an issue in Golden State. They are a fully realized powerhouse in Year 1, and they are confident they will get even better as Durant absorbs the tendencies and quirks of his teammates — and they absorb his.

“We only peeled the first layer,” Fraser said. “There are many more.”

The league and union must grapple with how we arrived here. A salary cap is designed to prevent star-laden teams from adding more talent without giving up much in return. The league’s rich new national TV deal broke the system. It triggered a one-time-only mega-spike in the cap — from $70 million last season to $94 million in this one — that provided Golden State room to sign Durant and retain most of its key players.

The league saw it coming late, and in 2014 proposed a method of phasing in the cap increase in increments over more years. The players would still get all their money. It would be just be distributed a little differently. The union rejected the idea out of hand, and didn’t counter by asking for anything in return — beyond making a little noise, sources say, about the possibility of getting some of the TV money in advance.

The dialogue basically ended there. The league has insisted there was nothing more it could do. The union’s objection was absolute, and ironclad. Perhaps that is true. It does not change the fact that there are team executives who believe the league could and should have done more — threatening, bargaining, something — to foreclose the possibility of this monster growing in Oakland. (Depending on the particulars, Golden State might have been able to fit Durant under a smoothed cap by dumping Iguodala into another team’s space. It’s hard to know for sure.)

Rivals a tier below Golden State and Cleveland are contemplating whether chasing the Warriors is even worth it while all four stars are in their primes. Why exchange draft picks and young players for present-day talent if an upgrade still leaves you way short?

“You know where your competition is,” said Danny Ainge, the GM of the Boston Celtics, who chose to stand pat at the trade deadline when the Chicago Bulls demanded a king’s ransom for Jimmy Butler. “The formula to become an elite team hasn’t changed. What you’re asking is if Golden State has changed things so that you have no chance.”

Most teams don’t have the luxury of even asking this question. Franchises in Charlotte and Memphis just have to be as good as they can be every season. The Celtics are different. They are straddling two paths as a 53-win team with a heap of extra draft picks, including the No. 1 pick this month and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected pick next season.

The Toronto Raptors were in a similar situation when they flipped Terrence Ross and three draft picks — including one first-rounder — for Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker. They went close to all-in, though without surrendering any asset nearly as valuable as those Brooklyn picks. Cleveland humiliated them in four games.

Most team executives around the league agree there might be some small overall chilling effect on win-now transactions in the wake of Golden State’s run. Middling teams without a star could attempt a multi-year process-style bottoming out, though none appear primed to do so. “As a response to the Golden State mega-team, I hear the NBA is considering giving out banners to teams who don’t get swept,” chuckled Daryl Morey, Houston’s GM.

Morey is joking. He has a top-five player in James Harden — “top-three, we think, for sure,” Morey said — and will not sacrifice a season of Harden’s prime in trembling awe of these Warriors. Nor will the Spurs trifle with Kawhi Leonard’s best years. They will not trade those players to bottom out, either. The whole point of tanking is to get a chance at players who might be as good as Harden and Leonard.

Weird stuff happens. Role players make unexpected leaps. Teams nail draft picks. Stars get hurt at the wrong time. Making the Finals would still mean something to any Eastern Conference team that unseats LeBron, even if the Warriors sweep them.

“They are not unbeatable,” Morey said of Golden State. “There have been bigger upsets in sports history. We are going to keep improving our roster.”

Ainge remembers feeling his 1986 champion Celtics would stay on top for years. The Detroit Pistons seized the Eastern Conference two years later.

“Something can happen that nobody foresees,” Ainge said. “I don’t look at it as doom and gloom right now.”

Boston paid Al Horford the max last summer. He is 31. If Durant were still in Oklahoma City, Boston might burn more future assets to win today. But they are still going to try.

“We are definitely not in punt mode,” Ainge said. “But trading away picks and promising young players for a veteran who might be 5 percent better is not in our plans, either.”

There is always a super-team to chase. If this one is better than its predecessors, that doesn’t mean everyone peels off that chase. “I like having targets in Cleveland and Golden State,” Ainge said. “I like trying to meet their standards. It might not happen in a year. It might not happen in five years. WIth them, it might never happen. That’s how special they are.”

The next tier of teams might have to take more risks to increase their game-to-game variability — and nudge their ceiling up, Morey said. Houston traded a first-round pick for Lou Williams, a streaky scorer who might give an underdog two or three crazy outlier games it needs to pull off an upset. Other rivals will need to hit home runs on those trades, or preserve cap space for long-shot runs at stars in free agency. Miami is loading up now to pursue Gordon Hayward, according to league sources.

“We are used to long odds,” Morey added. “If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”

They also know the Warriors may not be able to afford their team as the four stars sign mammoth new deals, potentially starting with Durant and Curry this summer. Depending on what happens with Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Zaza Pachulia — also free agents in July — the Warriors could vault $20 million over the tax next season, and $30 million over in 2018-19.

Thompson becomes eligible for a new deal that summer. Max him out, and the payroll could crack $300 million with extra penalties for repeat taxpayers. And that is factoring conservatively, with Iguodala and Livingston off the books after 2019; a below-market estimate for Patrick McCaw (a restricted free agent after next season); and the rest of the roster filled with minimum contracts, cost-controlled first-rounders, and cheapo second-round picks. (The Warriors have traded their second-round picks in each of the next three drafts, but they are trying to buy back into this draft, according to several league sources.)

Then comes Green, in the summer of 2020. If he hits free agency eligible for the super-max designated player extension, the Warriors are looking at a roster bill approaching $440 million. Coaxing two of the stars into below-market deals wouldn’t make enough of a dent. They also paid almost $50 million into the league’s revenue-sharing system last season, according to sources familiar with the data.

The Warriors print money, and they will print more when they move into a new arena in San Francisco. They are worth at least four or five times what this ownership group paid for them a half-decade ago. An unexpected leap in the cap could ease the pain.

Still, no team has ever paid anything like that. The Warriors almost certainly won’t. The only way out is to trade one star. Thompson would seem the likeliest candidate.

Nobody is ready to go there yet, of course. The Warriors can’t even acknowledge the dilemma — even whisper the chance of a breakup — before they have signatures from Curry and Durant on long-term deals. They will swallow normal-ish tax bills to hunt rings over the next two years.

“That’s what we want — to be contenders for years and years,” Thompson said. “So far, so good.”

Kevin Durant (Kevin Durant) good at LeBron – James (LeBron James)

OAKLAND, Calif. — This 2017 Golden State Warriors championship was as much a tribute to LeBron James as it was a triumph over him. The fact that the Warriors needed to add Kevin Durant to the core of a team that won 73 regular-season games and pushed James to the brink of elimination in the 2016 NBA Finals was just as relevant as the compulsion Durant felt to join this team in order to get a ring.

It’s not as simple as “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” When Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder blew a 3-1 lead of their own to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals, Durant had still won two more games against Stephen Curry than he did against James the first time they squared off in the 2012 NBA Finals. Curry, he could beat. Probably should’ve beat. But they needed to align to defeat James and Kyrie Irving.

“LeBron was the driving force,” a Durant confidant said of his league-changing decision to join the Warriors.

So Durant made the necessary choice. He left the only franchise he had played for since his rookie season in 2007-08. He endured the ridicule, the questions about his fortitude. He did it all for these moments, several of them really, building all season and throughout the 129-120 victory in Game 5. There was a slight fist pump to the crowd as Curry shot free throws. There were the half-skips, half-gallops after making big shots in the fourth quarter. There was the bend over near midcourt with less than a minute left in the game as he tried to inhale the magnitude of it all, while Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala exhorted him to keep playing and finish it off. (No one is more qualified to speak on the importance of finishing it off than the members of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors).Kevin Durant embraced LeBron James -- and the idea of beating the game's preeminent player in the NBA Finals.
Finally, after the confetti fell and the stage was hastily erected on the court and the Warriors and their family members celebrated, did you notice that Durant held the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy up with two hands, for much longer than the quick, one-handed pump of the Bill Russell award for the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player?

The big one was the more meaningful one. The slender Russell award felt like a foregone conclusion two games in, and it was voted unanimously by an 11-member media panel after Durant averaged 35 points, eight rebounds and five assists during the series. Durant outscored James in three of the five games. Durant had a bigger impact, even though James averaged a triple-double in the series. Durant was the story of Game 3, even though James and Irving combined for 77 points, because Durant scored the seven biggest points in crunch time.

And yet, in the aftermath, James was very much the story, at least in Durant’s eyes.

“It feels great to win, but to go against somebody I view as like a rival, personally, is an amazing feeling to beat him,” Durant said.

Durant knows how fleeting the victory might be, and the next phase is to “beat him to the gym” in July to get ready for next season. It was part of the immense respect Durant has for James, something he verbalized throughout the night.

James, asked to look back to winning his first championship with the Miami Heat against Durant in 2012, could appreciate how it must have felt for Durant to break through. But that’s where the sympathy ended.

“Well, I’m not happy he won his first,” James said, cracking a rare smile during his postgame news conference. “I’m not happy at all. But at the end of the day, from when I played him in the 2012 Finals to now, like I said, experience is the best teacher in life, and he’s just experiencing and experiencing and experiencing. And it also helps when you are able to experience some things with this team, as well. He felt like he needed to reassemble and reassess his career and come here.”

It sounded like the slightest bit of shade, perhaps even a bit of envy. James can’t criticize too much, though, having bolted Cleveland for Miami to get his first championships, then leaving Pat Riley back in South Beach when it was obvious the aging Heat roster couldn’t keep contending. During these Finals, James made sure to point out the differences between the tear-it-down-and-reassemble Heat team he formed in 2010 to the championship-close Warriors that Durant hopped aboard last summer.

That made Durant’s move even less palatable to some than the scorned Decision. But Step 1 for Durant making it pay off was coming to acceptance with it himself. His mother, Wanda Durant, saw that breakthrough about a month after his July 4 announcement.

“I think he was a little nervous at the beginning, because it was such a change for him,” she said. “He had such a storied history in Oklahoma. He was certain, but he was still kind of unfamiliar with the territory. Once he became solid in the decision that he made to come, I saw a difference in him. He has a freedom as a man, that only the journey of making a hard decision brings you to.”

Durant also had to navigate the stardom-sharing duties with Curry. They never blended better than in the Finals, when Curry averaged 27 points, 9.4 assists and eight rebounds — MVP-type numbers himself, if not for Durant. But Curry wouldn’t have been on stage as a two-time champion if not for Durant. The Warriors needed someone who could outplay James, and Durant gave them that.

“This was what we talked about this whole year,” Curry said, “realizing this goal and understanding how important we both would be to the equation, along with our teammates, and learned a lot about each other going through this journey.”

When the Warriors finally lived up to their “Strength In Numbers” slogan in Game 5 with solid contributions from Iguodala and David West and even a couple of buckets from Pat McCaw, it was all the Cavaliers could do to keep the score within single digits.

The Warriors and Durant weren’t just the perfect match — they were necessary components. When we look back and assess the peak of James’ career, the greatest testament will be that this is what it took to beat him.

NBA Finals MVP Kevin – Durant is still ignored

THEY HAD COME to expect he would hit the improbable jumper, the most difficult shot at the most critical time. That’s why Kevin Durant came here, right? In Golden State’s championship-clinching, Game 5 win, the signature Durant basket was a fallaway 3-pointer with a shade over 10 minutes remaining over the outstretched arms of Kevin Love as the shot clock clicked down — 0:06, 0:05, 0:04.

That jumper pushed his team’s tenuous lead to eight points. It’s a moment that will be featured in every highlight reel, every championship documentary. Durant was named the MVP of the 2017 NBA Finals following a 39-point, seven-rebound performance that cemented his place in the pantheon of great players who rise to the occasion when the game matters most.

Few will remember another moment in Game 5, early in the third quarter, when Durant, who was shadowing LeBron James, was picked off by a screen and switched onto Love on the left elbow. Love turned to face the 7-footer, tried to post, turned back again to face Durant, took two dribbles with his right hand, pump-faked … and went nowhere. With Durant bodied up on him, Love had no angle to shoot and tossed the ball back to James, who was forced to launch a 25-foot desperation trey that clanked off the rim.LeBron James&Kevin Durant
Defense rarely makes headlines, but that’s why the Warriors are champions today. After a Game 4 meltdown in which Golden State relinquished an NBA-record 86 points in a half, and a ragged first half in Game 5 in which Cleveland shot 53 percent, the Warriors regrouped in the second half Monday to extinguish any hopes of a Cavaliers comeback with closeouts such as Durant’s on Love. Durant has never been viewed as a defensive stopper the way teammates Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have, but when he signed with Golden State last July, he understood what made this team thrive.

“You got to play both ends,” he said. “I was ready for that.”

His clutch, pull-up 3 over James in Game 3 will be framed as another signature moment in these Finals, the glossy cover to a championship dossier in which he laid claim to the moniker of this year’s best player on the biggest stage.

But nearly as memorable to Durant’s teammates was a subtler encounter with LeBron earlier in Game 3, when James rotated to the top of the key with Durant in pursuit. For a split second, it was as if the basketball seas had parted. LeBron, with Durant crouching in front of him, surveyed a free path to the basket and made a motion to start his power drive, which he has used to muscle past overmatched defenders for much of his career. But Durant held his position, spindly arms outstretched. The message: Go ahead. I dare you.

James hesitated, thought better of it — and passed the ball. “All you want as a defender is make a guy think twice,” Green says. “That’s what you saw with LeBron. He knows he can’t just attack KD.”

That realization was a residual effect from Game 2, when, midway through the second quarter with Golden State holding a 53-46 advantage, LeBron brushed off a high screen, bulled his way to the hole from the left wing and moved one step past Durant. James, convinced he had KD beat, released the lefty lay-in just before Durant swatted it into the seats.

He was far from Durant’s only victim that night.

Consider Kyrie Irving, who lined up a step-back jumper from the top of the key as the shot clock dwindled down. Durant knocked that shot away, too.

Minutes later, as Love set up in the post, Durant waited, refused to bite on the up-fake, then stuffed Love when he finally launched a turnaround. Durant grabbed the rejection, drove the length of the court and scored a layup in transition.

It was a dazzling display of defensive versatility. By the time Game 2 had ended, Durant had submitted arguably the greatest defensive performance of his life. Most observers gushed over the 33 points he scored, but Durant also finished with five blocks, three steals and 11 defensive rebounds. Only one other player since 1984, according to Basketball-Reference.com, has matched those numbers: Hall of Fame shoo-in Tim Duncan, who did it in Game 1 of the 2003 NBA Finals. No Hakeem, no Shaq. Just Duncan, one of the finest defensive players of his generation, and Durant.

While KD spent chunks of this series guarding LeBron, his assignments varied, sometimes from possession to possession, matching up against everyone from Love to Kyle Korver. Durant checked Irving, utilizing his uncommonly adept foot speed to thwart a point guard who is known as one of the most dynamic finishers in the league. Irving got nowhere. When Durant was on him, he quickly moved the ball along.

“Kevin is long, he’s got quick feet, he’s good on lateral movement, and it’s hard to shoot over him,” says Ron Adams, Golden State’s defensive Yoda. “And, if you get past him, he’ll get you from behind. It’s not just length — it’s also timing.”

Green is a favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year and is a regular on the All-Defensive ledger. Yet in these Finals, Durant, who has never sniffed All-Defensive — either first or second team — often matched Draymond’s Swiss-army-knife capabilities. Green insists it is time to include Durant in the discussion as one of the league’s elite defenders.

“Kevin can guard anybody in the NBA,” Green says. “He’s also the best scorer in the league. So how is he not the best two-way player in the game? How come nobody gives him that? It’s amazing to me.”

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE WHY we are all so mesmerized by Durant’s scoring arsenal in the same way we are hypnotized by Golden State’s crisp ball movement, 3-point bombs and explosive transition game. But, as Steph Curry reminds us, so many of those highlights are spawned from the defensive end of the floor. One little misstep and these Warriors will pounce, whether it’s off a turnover or a missed shot.

More often than not, the Warriors have four players on the floor, including Durant, who can start the break themselves. And, as the Warriors streak down the floor, it’s not uncommon for Curry or Thompson or even Durant to suddenly pull up and drill a 3. Giving up points in transition is demoralizing, but giving up three of them is crushing. It happened at least once in every game of this series.

“Those are momentum swings,” Curry says, “that only happen if we get stops.”

Durant says that coach Steve Kerr began talking defense almost as soon as he arrived — stressing that few, if any, championship teams won with subpar defenses, and the team needed to be within the top five of most defensive categories.

Message received. The Warriors were rather quietly a defensive juggernaut this season — leading the league in defensive field goal percentage (43.2 percent), defensive 3-point percentage (32.2 percent), steals per game (9.5) and blocks per game (6.7) during the regular season. They were an excellent defensive team before Durant came aboard, but it’s no coincidence these numbers ticked up in every category with the signing of KD and his 7-foot-5 wingspan. Green, of course, is still the defensive anchor, but by pairing him with Durant, it frees Green to roam the court, rotate to challenge shooters, even double-team if he wants, while Durant relies on his length and lateral quickness to cover enough ground to guard two players at once. In those scenarios, spacing for the opposition becomes a nightmare, as Cleveland soon learned.

“Durant covers a lot of ground,” says Cavs forward Richard Jefferson. “You think the opening is there … but it’s really not.”

Durant averaged a career-high 1.6 blocks per game this season, even as he averaged four fewer minutes per game than his career average. Durant blocked 3.8 percent of 2-point shots while on the floor, per NBA.com, which is almost 50 percent higher than his previous high in block percentage (2.6 in 2012-13). It was numbers like these that quickly assuaged preseason concerns about the Warriors lacking a rim protector.

What’s harder to quantify is the number of shots Durant altered by closing out on shooters, something Korver experienced firsthand. “Even if Durant just makes you shoot a little faster than you want to, that’s great defense,” Korver says.

And Durant continued to flex his defensive muscles in the postseason. Opponents shot a measly 44.8 percent at the rim with KD contesting (a number that was only 41 percent through Game 3). There are 24 players who contested at least 50 shots at the rim in the 2017 playoffs. The only players with better success rates than Durant were Toronto’s Serge Ibaka (40 percent) and Jonas Valanciunas (43.7). By way of comparison, consider the numbers of other notable postseason rim protectors: Green (45 percent), Rudy Gobert (46.3 percent), LeBron (53 percent) and DeAndre Jordan (58.9 percent).

To put it another way, when Durant is in the vicinity, opponents miss an astonishing 55 percent of their layups.

“You can’t account for his length,” Curry says. “You don’t want to drive on him, because even if you get a step on him, he can still recover and meet you at the rim with his athleticism. When you get into a one-on-one situation with him, it really does feel like there’s nowhere to go.”

RON ADAMS HAS had a unique perspective on the development of Kevin Durant, Defensive Force. Adams was an assistant coach from 2008 to 2010 in Oklahoma City, which coincided with Durant’s first two seasons in OKC, and he says Durant was always an effective defender in OKC, but his heavy offensive responsibilities occupied the bulk of his attention and energy.

“Kevin had a tremendous amount of pressure on him to perform at an extremely high offensive level,” Adams says. “What’s changed is the defensive part of the game is more important to him now.

“He’s having fun with it. I see it in the consistency of his defensive effort.”

Adams says Durant can be even better defensively, in part because he has paid close attention to the intuitive ability of Green to anticipate the next move of the offense. Durant, Adams says, is now exhibiting similar tendencies, pointing to a moment in Game 3 when Durant, expecting Love’s cross-court pass, jumped the passing lane, intercepted the ball and took it down the floor in transition, where he found Curry for a 3-pointer.

“I call it acting rather than reacting,” Adams says, “and Kevin is getting quite good at it.”

Green says nobody should be surprised at Durant’s defensive instincts. Even though Oklahoma City was never viewed as a defensive juggernaut, Green says Durant was the single biggest disruptive defensive force in last year’s Western Conference finals.

“He altered our entire offense,” Green says. “He made us do everything we didn’t want to do, take shots we didn’t want to take. We [were] trying to space our offense and he [was] covering two guys at once with his wingspan. He was the best defensive player in that series.

“After that, I knew he had it in him. It’s about being locked in. And he’s been locked in the entire season.”

The fruits of those labors provided him the opportunity to cradle the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy all the way to his winning locker room, to revel in congratulatory hugs from James, Jerry West, his mother, Wanda, his coach, Steve Kerr, and his business partner Rich Kleiman. Each of them understands his journey to this professional apex, a moment that left Durant overwhelmed with tears of relief.

“Nobody comes in and cares about the game or loves the game as much as I do or works as hard as do,” Durant said. “You can talk about whatever happens on the outside, but inside those lines, I come to bring it every day. I work hard, I believe in myself, I believe in the game, I respect the game, I love the game, and I knew at some point in my life that it will come around for me. So I just tried to stay with those principles and keep grinding.”

“Everybody for the last 10 years knew how good he was,” Kerr said, “but until you break through and win that first championship, there is still — there’s always still something there.

“I’m just so happy Kevin has broken through. And there’s more to come from him.”

Now that Durant has a ring and a Finals MVP trophy, Green says no one should be surprised if Durant sets his sights on some defensive hardware next season. Adams says he’d be delighted if defense turns out to be Durant’s primary focus in 2017-18 and would bet the house on the results.

“If Kevin Durant makes up his mind,” Adams says, “he can do anything he wants.”