The Oklahoma City Thunder's recent spending spree is rooted in their efforts to retain Kevin Durant. Plus, a look back on Deron Williams's tenure with the Brooklyn Nets.
LAS VEGAS—No league does the offseason like the NBA. Its free agency period has become a two-week plus free for all, gripping the sports world during a time baseball once took over and NFL training camp buzz usually overlapped. NBA executives may have cringed at the childish way DeAndre Jordan flipped on Mark Cuban, but make no mistake: Last Friday’s emoji-infused 12 hours was one of the greatest days in sports Twitter history. Planes, trains and, in the case of Paul Pierce, 1990's clip art.
Transactions aside, the NBA also does something else really well: Summer leagues. Currently, NBA teams populate three of them: Orlando, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Orlando is more intimate, closed to the public, which some teams prefer. Salt Lake City, which returned to the summer league ranks after a seven-year hiatus, drew rave reviews—and more than 10,000 fans a night. Las Vegas, the brainchild of coach agent Warren LeGarie, is the busiest of the bunch, with 24 teams playing in front of startlingly swollen crowds. It’s incredible, really. Crowds, some in excess of 12,000, pack the Thomas and Mack Center and the adjacent Cox Pavilion to see one or two blue chip prospects and a bunch of guys likely to be updating their passports in the coming weeks.
For team executives, down time is dominated by three things: Dining, gambling and gossip. In the case of the latter, events of the past week gave them plenty to talk about.
OKC’s spending spree
A surprising number of people panned Oklahoma City’s decision to match the four-year, $70 million offer sheet to Enes Kanter last weekend. Do I think Kanter is worth an average salary of $17.5 million? Even in today’s swollen market (Here’s looking at you, Reggie Jackson) that’s a big number for a player who has turned defensive indifference into an art form. But to say Oklahoma City made a mistake is ludicrous, for a variety of reasons.
First, this team needs Kanter. Not to be a starter or a 35-minute-per-night player, but to be the offensive tentpole of the second unit, the low post scoring, rebound gobbling machine that he has proven to be in a brief, four-year career. Oklahoma City’s starting lineup is locked. The rapidly improving Steven Adams is the center. Serge Ibaka, a defensive monster, plays alongside him. No question, Kanter’s vapid defense ensures he won’t be on the floor late in games. But who says Oklahoma City needs him in those situations anyway?
Further, there is this weird perception that OKC could have just taken the $70 million Portland offered Kanter, pivoted and given it to someone else. Come on. For the Thunder, cap issues mandated that it was Kanter or nothing, and no matter what you think of Kanter, he is a lot better than nothing. Think about Oklahoma City’s second unit: It’s Kanter, Nick Collison, Kyle Singler, D.J. Augustin and the loser of the Dion Waiters/Andre Roberson battle. Not to mention Mitch McGary (who Oklahoma City execs are very high on), Steve Novak (who OKC has taken off the trading block, I’m told) and Josh Huestis, last year’s first round pick who is a strong candidate to be part of the team this season. In the middle of a snake bitten season, Thunder GM Sam Presti turned Reggie Jackson (who didn’t want to be in OKC anyway) and Kendrick Perkins into Kanter, Singler and Augustin, three players the Thunder would not have been able to sign outright due to cap considerations.
Paying Kanter gives pundits license to bring up James Harden, and the Thunder are right to be pilloried for that move. They should have offered Harden the max three years ago, dared him to reject it and dealt with any third banana complex Harden would have felt at some point. They didn’t, and there will always be what-ifs because of it. But matching Kanter isn’t overcompensating for a prior mistake. It’s locking up a gifted center years from his prime. It’s plugging Kanter, 23, into a rotation with an average age of 26. It’s giving Durant and Russell Westbrook the low post presence they need to balance the lineup.
And let’s be real here: Being cheap is not an option. Durant’s free agency has already cast a long shadow over this team, and that shadow will only grow as we inch toward next summer. But while speculation will run rampant, Presti is doing the only thing he can—putting together a deep, talented team with the potential for long-term success. Time and again, Durant has expressed one desire: To win. And while so many teams are gutting their rosters to create the cap space necessary to sign Durant, Oklahoma City has quietly put together a superior one around him.
Postmortem: Deron Williams
Mike Vaccaro, the always excellent longtime columnist for the New York Post, raised an interesting question recently: Is Williams the most forgettable would-be superstar in the history of New York sports? That Williams is even in the conversation speaks volumes about his disappointing four-plus year tenure with the Nets. Much was expected of Williams when the Nets, then based in New Jersey, poached him from Utah in 2011. Here was Williams, a dynamic, in-his-prime point guard whose only peer at the time was the redoubtable Chris Paul. What followed were some gaudy, though steadily declining numbers, one All-Star berth and an astonishingly rapid exit from the NBA’s point guard elite.
The Williams Era—if we can really call it that—ended last Saturday, with the Nets agreeing to pay Williams $27.5 million of the remaining $43.3 million of his contract. What happened? Injuries hurt. Williams's ankles were never the same after the 2012 Olympics, drowned in cortisone shots until double ankle surgery last year. And the Nets went from a rag tag bunch when Williams arrived to this overpriced collection of talent that Williams was expected to help mold together under the watchful eye of a Hall of Fame point guard turned head coach, Jason Kidd, who couldn’t understand why Williams didn’t have the same drive that he did.
Truthfully, much of Williams's failure in Brooklyn boiled down to this: He just wasn’t built for it. There’s a certain mental makeup required to be a franchise player, a toughness that must be enhanced when playing in a market like New York. Williams didn’t have it. He thrived in Utah, succeeding (sort of) in relative anonymity, sharing the spotlight with Jerry Sloan and Carlos Boozer in a market that didn’t ply him with a fraction of the pressure Brooklyn did. Carmelo Anthony, for all his warts, is the perfect New York player. He can have a dismal game, absorb the boos from the fans and a beating from the media, and be brimming with confidence the next day. Williams? Not so much.
Williams was a puzzle no one was able to solve. Paul Pierce tried, his efforts evolving from private dinners spent boosting Williams's confidence to public pastings in practice, according to league sources. Lionel Hollins attempted to get through to Williams; an NBA source confirmed a New York Daily News report that one such session resulted in Williams needing to be physically restrained from going after Hollins. To be fair, Hollins didn’t cover himself with glory, as his pep talk consisted of bluntly laying out all the reasons Williams had tumbled from the top of the point guard crop, according to sources familiar with the confrontation. The thin-skinned Williams couldn’t handle it.
Many NBA execs—including those in Brooklyn, frankly—think Williams will do well in Dallas, which inked Williams to a two-year, $10 million deal on Tuesday. He will be home, playing without the burden of a big contract with a team that already has a franchise player. He will work under Rick Carlisle, a closer facsimile to Sloan than Hollins or Kidd, whose system Williams should adapt to quickly. At 31, Williams's All-Star days are likely behind him. But he will have years, in Dallas or elsewhere, to put the memories of his Nets tenure behind him. Brooklyn, though, will never forget.
• Nuggets execs have been practically giddy about the summer league performance of rookie Emmanuel Mudiay. Forget the statistics—though Mudiay’s 19 point, 10 rebound effort against Sacramento on Sunday was impressive—Mudiay just looks like an NBA player. At 19, and coming off an injury-riddled season in China, Mudiay would be forgiven for being a little rusty. Instead, he has looked polished, blending poised playmaking with a powerful off the dribble game. Denver’s decision on what to do with Ty Lawson got a little more complicated on Tuesday, when Lawson was arrested for his second DUI this year, effectively cratering his trade value, but this much is clear: Mudiay is the Nuggets future.
• The Timberwolves got a surprise visitor at shootaround on Monday: Kevin Garnett, who popped in to work some of the ‘Wolves' young players—including super rookie Karl-Anthony Towns, who has been praised effusively by the coaching staff for his all-around game. It’s been said before but worth saying again: Towns is going to benefit enormously from being mentored by Garnett in practice every day.
• Not much movement between the Cavaliers and Matthew Dellavedova on a new contract. A restricted free agent, Dellavedova is seeking a multiyear deal starting at $4 million per season, per a source, and the Cavs have balked, largely due to the enormous luxury tax implications that come with that type of contract. The market has largely dried up—Jeremy Lin’s deal with Charlotte closed a potential door—so it will be interesting to see how long this stalemate continues. Paging LeBron James.
• Fun fact: Pelicans assistant coach Darren Erman, who coached New Orleans for the first three games in Las Vegas, is now 10-0 as a summer league coach. That record dates back to Erman’s time as an assistant with Golden State. Erman—one of the most sought after assistant coaches on the market this summer—will be charged with turning around a defense that ranked 22nd in efficiency last season.
• Interesting face in the Sacramento Kings camp this week: Former Grizzlies top executive Jason Levien. Levien, a former Kings executive last seen losing a power struggle with Memphis owner Robert Pera, is a guest of Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and was seen chatting up President of Basketball Operations Vlade Divac. Could Levien work his way into the power structure in Sacramento? It’s the Kings—anything is possible.