Sports

Seven NBA Observations on Kevin Durant’s Next Team, Free Agency, and Chet Holmgren

Folks, a lot has changed across the NBA over the past week. Free agents have swapped teams, one particular superstar is demanding a trade, and rookies are starting to show off this summer. To wrap our heads around the action, here are seven thoughts on what’s happening around the NBA:

1. Could the Pelicans Swoop in for KD?

After Kevin Durant formally requested a trade from the Nets, reports said the Suns and Heat sat atop his wish list of preferred destinations. Durant holds leverage to an extent, but he is under contract for another four seasons, meaning a new franchise would have time, in theory, to win him over. That’s led a team like the Raptors to become an increasingly popular destination for him, both in public discourse and for oddsmakers. One potential suitor that hasn’t received as much attention is the Pelicans, but they should be taken seriously, considering a report last week from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

Windhorst said on his Hoop Collective podcast that the Pelicans hope to have their head coach, Willie Green, “sell the vision that they have” to Durant. Now, why is that? Well, New Orleans is sitting on 13 future first-round picks and a deeply talented young core, arguably one of the best in the NBA with a healthy Zion Williamson. If the Pelicans wanted to, they could beat pretty much any other team’s offer for Durant. For example, they could send Brandon Ingram and a bounty of picks. KD is basically the A+ version of Ingram. If Zion stays healthy, adding Durant would make the Pelicans a contender. But to go all in on a trade like this, they’d need Durant’s approval.

The Pelicans hope they have an in since Green was hired as an assistant coach in Golden State weeks after KD chose to sign there. During that 2016-17 season, while Durant was rehabbing from an injury, Green would play one-on-one with KD to help him get back into shape. The Pelicans want to tap into that relationship. As Windhorst said, they see Green as “sort of their weapon here.”

New Orleans’s interest can also be a weapon for Brooklyn because those assets could drive up the asking price. That is, of course, if Durant sees the Pelicans as a viable option.

“I don’t know if Kevin would allow such a meeting to happen,” Windhorst reported. “Just because the Nets would grant it doesn’t mean Kevin would allow it.”

From a basketball standpoint, the Pelicans make a ton of sense. Durant would be the leader of a young, talented playoff team that may lack seasoning but has all the ingredients to make the Finals. A good coach in Green. Lockdown defenders like Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado. A veteran shot-creating guard in CJ McCollum, and grizzled veterans like Jonas Valanciunas. Then there’s the potential megastar in Zion, who can handle the ball and finish in the paint with Shaq-like efficiency when he’s healthy.

The Pelicans would provide Durant a chance to build a culture from the ground up, putting them in position to win today and laying the groundwork to sustain success into the future, whether things end with him leaving for another team one day or eventually retiring as a Pelican.

That might sound like Pelicans fan fiction. But here’s some reality: They aren’t the only suitor with assets and picks, and they obviously have more risk attached to them compared to the Suns or the Heat. But the Pelicans should have additional appeal because even if they gave up Ingram and eight first-round picks, they’d still have five firsts remaining. The Pelicans would have a contending roster and maintain the ability to get much better, whereas the Suns, Heat, and other teams don’t even have eight future firsts to offer.

Picks are the best way to change a roster, whether they’re used in trades or on draft night. Having picks allowed the Warriors to land Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga. A lack of picks is why the Nets weren’t able to upgrade their depth at the trade deadline, and a limited supporting cast was one of the factors in their getting swept by the Celtics in the first round. Durant was contained in part due to Brooklyn’s lack of shooters, since Boston was able to aggressively send help or clog the paint. If he joins the Pelicans, he would be on a team with the flexibility to build through the draft or make additions through trades to bolster the roster and thus their Finals chances. At a minimum, KD should at least listen to what Willie Green has to say.

2. Gobert Is Worth the Risk

For the life of me, I’ll never totally understand the backlash Rudy Gobert receives on social media. I’m convinced it all stems from the moment Steph Curry put him in the spin cycle during the 2017 playoffs, and all the memes that came from it.

Gobert was slapped with a reputation as a 7-footer with lead feet who can’t move on the perimeter. And even though he dramatically improved his perimeter defense (and is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year), Utah’s annual postseason struggles have only reinforced that idea. This isn’t meant to excuse Gobert’s shortcomings. His flaws are real. But his new team is better built to compensate for his weaknesses while magnifying his strengths.

To land Gobert, the Timberwolves sent the Jazz three unprotected first-round picks (in 2023, 2025, and 2027), along with a top-five protected first in 2029, 2022 pick Walker Kessler, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Leandro Bolmaro. That amounts to five first-rounders between 2022 and 2029, so the Wolves will have only the ability to trade first-round swaps in 2024, 2026, and 2028 until picks in the 2030s (gulp) become available to move.

It’s a lot. But the Wolves are ready to take the next step. Anthony Edwards could be on the brink of superstardom. Both Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are coming off the best seasons of their still-young careers. And Gobert addresses the team’s weaknesses from last season—namely rebounding and interior defense. It’s also a two-way street since the Wolves have what Gobert lacked in Utah. Gobert has never played with frontcourt partners like KAT or Jaden McDaniels. Towns is a 7-footer with an ace 3-point shot and the ability to make plays off the dribble. McDaniels is a long, rangy defender with the versatility to contain players of all sizes.

With Minnesota’s personnel, Gobert won’t be in no-win situations like he often found himself in Utah, trying to compensate for his teammates’ defensive shortcomings. With McDaniels and Towns, there are other back-line defenders if he has to shift around the court. Even Edwards, with his football-player frame, and Russell, at 6-foot-4, provide more resistance than some of Utah’s past perimeter defenders. With versatile pieces and better on-ball perimeter defense, Gobert will have the best support of his career. And the Wolves, who ranked no. 13 in defensive rating last season, could go from good to elite.

Gobert could also help Minnesota’s offense as a big who can roll to the basket and score efficiently. The Jazz ranked third in the league in efficiency last season when their big rolled, largely thanks to Gobert. So now, the Timberwolves have the NBA’s best roller in Gobert and the best pick-and-pop big in Towns. When Towns popped out of a ball screen last season, the Wolves scored 1.185 points per chance, tops in the NBA over the past two seasons, according to Second Spectrum.

Edwards and Russell should see their numbers improve in the pick-and-roll, just like Utah’s guards did for years with Gobert screening. Of the 109 ball handlers to run at least 500 pick-and-rolls last season, Russell ranked 25th in efficiency and Edwards was 60th. Now they could have either Towns or Gobert on the court for all 48 minutes. Their style disparity could make the Wolves a matchup nightmare, especially if Russell and Edwards keep improving so they can be the perimeter creators in end-game situations. And outside of pick-and-rolls, Gobert can provide better vertical spacing than Vanderbilt did as a lob threat in all situations. And if the situation calls for a five-out lineup, Wolves head coach Chris Finch has the luxury to go with Towns at the 5.

One of the biggest criticisms of the trade is Gobert’s salary; he’ll be paid an average of $42.4 million through the 2025-26 season. He is expensive. But the Jazz didn’t pay him that money because they’re generous. It’s because he’s a valued player who would have received the same money on the open market, just as he was worth the five firsts from the Timberwolves as they try to address a major need.

The price Minnesota paid does complicate new president of basketball ops Tim Connelly’s ability to make further big moves. Without a trade, Connelly won’t be drafting in the first round again until 2024. Cap room will be harder to come by. But Gobert is a massive upgrade. Minnesota needs another wing or two for this roster to feel complete. If rookie Wendell Moore can become an early contributor it would help a lot, and he certainly has the tools as a hard-nosed defender who made 41 percent of his 3s as a Duke junior. For the most part, though, the roster is in great shape after also signing Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes.

My boss Bill Simmons and my Mismatch podcast partner Chris Vernon, like many others in sports media, believe that the new Timberwolves ownership is just trying to make a splash. I’m sure that was a factor since ownership has a say in every trade. But it also is a sign of an ownership team willing to take big risks for the sake of winning. Connelly sold them on a player who can increase this team’s championship odds. Now it’s Gobert’s chance to prove them right.


3. The Celtics Got Much Deeper

“I’m looking to win a championship, that’s actually it,” Malcolm Brogdon told The Athletic’s Jared Weiss after being sent to the Celtics last week. “In the past, I’ve worried about stats and numbers and all that. I’m going to Boston and not worrying about that.”

Brogdon averaged 12.8 points and 3.6 assists per game in the first three seasons of his career with the Bucks before leaving for the Pacers, where he averaged 18.9 points and 6.3 assists for the next three seasons. Now he’s in Boston after being acquired for a 2023 first-round pick, and he’s signed for $67.6 million over the next three years. The Celtics plan to bring Brogdon off the bench, so he’s saying all the right things about his selfless mindset.

Brogdon, 29, is a high-IQ player who can make plays for others, and he’s a savvy mover without the ball to create passing lanes for teammates. He’s a career 37.6 percent shooter from 3 with the ability to launch both off the catch and off the dribble. With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and others all getting shots, Brogdon will be pretty far down the totem pole in Boston compared to Indiana. But lower minutes and workload could be for the best since he’s been dogged by injuries, playing in only 71 percent of possible games throughout his career.

“These guys are proven winners at a championship level,” Brogdon told Weiss. “I’m hoping to be one of the pieces that can help them get over that hump and win a championship.”

Another piece is Danilo Gallinari, a 6-foot-10 forward who was on Boston’s radar going back to when Danny Ainge was running the team. Brad Stevens nabbed him on a two-year deal worth $13 million, providing the Celtics with a shot-making forward for the rotation. Gallo isn’t in his prime anymore, but he’s still an effective scorer who could help spark Boston’s half-court offense.

The Celtics made it to the NBA Finals riding a seven- or eight-man rotation for months going back to the regular season. Fatigue seemed to be a determining factor in their hard-fought seven-game series. Now, the Celtics have more options. And more reason for optimism.

4. Better Late Than Never, Portland

I love what the Trail Blazers have done this offseason, first adding Jerami Grant through a trade, then drafting Shaedon Sharpe and signing Gary Payton II in free agency. These are precisely the types of complementary players that Damian Lillard has long needed by his side.

Grant is one of the NBA’s better defenders when he’s locked in. Over the past three seasons, the former Piston has allowed the fewest points per isolation play among players to defend at least 300 possessions. Over the same time frame, the Blazers have allowed the fourth most. Payton, similarly, is a lockdown on-ball defender. Sharpe is just a rookie who didn’t play college basketball, but at the high school level he flashed the ability to defend on-ball and be an effective helper around the basket.

All of them, in their own ways, can also help Dame on offense. Sharpe projects as a go-to scorer, Payton does a lot of the dirty work as a screener and cutter, and Grant can play all over the floor. Chauncey Billups should use Grant as a screener for Lillard and as a spot-up shooter from the corners like he was in Denver, but we’ll also see him generating shots for himself like he did in Detroit.

Lillard will be 32 years old next season. Maybe these additions are coming too late for him to win a championship in Portland. But with Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic re-signed, and Josh Hart and Nassir Little back in the fold, Portland is working with a strong rotation. They’ll make a run at Durant, and even if they miss, they’ll target the next star that becomes available. There may come a time when moving on from Lillard is for the best, but the Blazers aren’t ready for that step yet.

5. John Wall’s Chance to Adapt

Back in 2020, when I was working on a story about him and Bradley Beal, Wall told me: “With the level [Beal] is playing, I don’t need to be a ball-dominant guy. To be honest, I wish it was like that for a long time. But it all comes in time and being patient. I’m happy not being on the ball 24/7, pushing the pace, creating everything. That shit is tiring.”

A lot has changed in the two years since that quote. Wall played 40 forgettable games with the Rockets, then sat out a full season, and now he’s with the Clippers on the mid-level exception. But what Wall said is relevant today since he’ll need to share the ball with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in Los Angeles. They will primarily handle the ball, so Wall will have to play much differently than ever before by hitting spot-up 3s, cutting, and defending.

“Brad tells me all the time, ‘You gotta be ready, so don’t put your hands on your knees. Always be shot-ready,’” Wall said in 2020. “I can be better. It’s just about doing it. We all can do a lot if we just put our mind to it. It’s not like I can’t play off-ball. … I can spot up or cut backdoor, or if Brad gets the ball in transition, I can run the floor. The fact we have somebody like Brad who can play at a high level, I’m fine and willing to do that.”

Wall has made 36.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since 2013-14, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s a good indicator for the Clippers, since they’ll be asking him to stand behind the arc pretty frequently. Any activity and movement is a bonus that could help make the Clips an even more devastating half-court offense, which is precisely where the upside is with Wall. We know he can still run a pick-and-roll and push the ball in transition. Now’s his chance to prove that he is indeed capable of so much more.

6. Nikola Jokic Has a New Target

Turn on a Nuggets game and you’re bound to see Nikola Jokic holding the ball somewhere on the court with teammates whizzing around him. It’s usually improvised motion, reading and reacting to what the defense presents. Getting Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back will lead to more sexy passes from Jokic—and likely for their new free-agent addition, too.

Over the weekend, Denver signed one of the best cutters in the NBA, Bruce Brown, to a two-year deal worth $13 million.

Brown’s best skill is a perfect match with Jokic’s playmaking ability. It’s a given they’ll develop instant chemistry. And though he has his limitations as a low-frequency shooter who defenses sometimes ignore behind the arc, he makes up for it as a secondary facilitator who provides strong on-ball effort on the other end.

Though Brown isn’t a flashy free agent signing, he’s one of the players changing teams that I’m most excited to watch because of the potential for beautiful basketball playing alongside a two-time MVP.

7. Emergency Summer League Update: CHET!

Chet Holmgren made his Thunder debut on Tuesday night and tallied 23 points (on nine shots), seven rebounds, six blocks, and four assists, all in just 24 minutes. It’s only summer league … but it was one of the best summer league performances I’ve ever seen.

Opponents became increasingly hesitant to drive on him inside as the game progressed because he blocked or altered everything around the rim. And on offense, Chet created off the dribble, hit pull-up jumpers, showed off a Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway, and served as a playmaker for his teammates.

Tacko Fall is massive, but he’s not Gobert. Scoring against elite NBA talent will obviously be a whole new challenge for Holmgren.

But in one game we saw Oklahoma City use him in more situations than he got a chance to play at Gonzaga. Holmgren dribbled up the floor. He screened and rolled. He picked and popped. He looked more like the high school version of himself with the freedom to do everything, except he’s even better now.

On draft night, I tweeted this:

A lot of people said I was exaggerating, instead pointing to the Grizzlies, the Pelicans, or the fact Luka Doncic is only 23, or that the Celtics just made the Finals with a young group. All fair. But what I’d say is undeniable is that Oklahoma City is best set up for long-term success when factoring in the strong roster and its unfathomable draft pick situation.

The Thunder have 17 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks over the next seven drafts, by far the most in the league. On top of a great young nucleus, they have solid role players like Aaron Wiggins and Kenrich Williams, plus shot creators in Theo Maledon and Tre Mann. But the core is headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a lockdown defender in Lu Dort, a playmaking wizard in Josh Giddey, and a franchise-altering talent in Holmgren. It’s enough to make Thunder fans salivate.

Drafting Holmgren will not be the last move up Sam Presti’s sleeve, either. He’s still just getting started.



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