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Kevin Durant’s injury an illustration of risk vs. reward



TORONTO — The Golden State Warriors and superstar Kevin Durant were faced with one of the toughest decisions in sports: helplessly watch and heal or risk injury and millions chasing an NBA title?

We saw a similar scenario play out in Boston in two seasons ago with Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury.

Thomas initially suffered the injury in March, sat out two games, and then played through the pain until he re-injured the hip in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Thomas eventually required surgery, leaving us to wonder whether he’ll ever be the same player again.

The player health vs. championship aspirations dilemma happens across pro sports.

In 2012, the Washington Nationals shut down pitcher Stephen Strasburg a month before the playoffs, choosing to protect their young ace, who was two years removed from elbow surgery. Washington deemed his long-term health was more important than their chances at a World Series title.


Isiah Thomas describes how Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury looked similar to his in 1994.

Durant was questionable to return in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals after being out for over a month with a calf injury. The two-time Finals MVP would be returning to a crucial showdown with his team down 3-1. The prospect of Durant playing in this series may have had Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Raptors fans losing sleep at night. A healthy Durant returning was the biggest threat aimed at Toronto and Canada enjoying its first-ever NBA title.

The Warriors’ dynasty was built for Durant. If Durant is healthy and at the top of his game, the Warriors could enter the conversation of greatest sports team ever by winning a third straight title. That’s what made this decision so extremely difficult for Durant, the Warriors and NBA fans. It is a moral dilemma that begs to question: Is an athlete simply a means to an end?

In Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, I played on a severely sprained right ankle for the Detroit Pistons, running the risk of a career-ending injury. I was willing to be a means to a championship end for my team and for the city of Detroit.


Isiah Thomas scored an NBA-record 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 of the 1988 Finals.

Some of the most iconic moments in sports have been accomplished while players were injured. We will never forget Willis Reed of the New York Knicks putting it all on the line. Reed inspired the Knicks and their fans as he limped out of the tunnel In Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. And the Knicks would be champs afterward.

Is it ever acceptable for an athlete to protect himself and not risk it all? Should an athlete reserve their years of earning capacity and health? People should always be treated with respect and dignity. They can be treated as an ends and as a means. But no one should ever be treated only as a means.

We might look to philosophy when determining right from wrong and what is in the individual’s and the team’s best interests. In his “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals,” German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes people as rational beings who have value and dignity which should not be used by others for the benefit of others.


Isiah Thomas breaks down how the Golden State locker room is handling Kevin Durant’s injury.

Let’s apply that philosophy to players, coaches and management. They all find themselves in a dilemma, at every level of play. We have seen players undervaluing their value to themselves by taking “magic” potions to become winners, knowing well the damage that they’re doing to their internal organs and taking the risk of potentially shortening their careers and perhaps their lives. These athletes treat their bodies as a means to an end.

Fans want to see Durant perform, to see him risk it all, to become the full means to an end. But even then, there is no guarantee of winning the championship. Are we OK with using the athletes for their ends or helping them to develop into “ends?” Are we OK with using “mind games” to convince or coerce a player to make the sacrifice of himself for the greater good — a championship?

Kant and most philosophers would see this as immoral. But in sports, this dilemma is played out daily and was on full display in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals. What would you do? What could you lose? Is the risk worth the reward?

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Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas , a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and ’90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in ’90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA.

He’s now an analyst for NBA TV and has contributed to

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Report: Pelicans’ Julius Randle declines player option, enters free agency



While the New Orleans Pelicans’ future draft picks are currently sucking up all the intrigue, a former lottery pick on their roster is reportedly ready to make noise as a free agent.

Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, power forward Julius Randle will decline his player option for the upcoming season, becoming a free agent ahead of a wide-open class unexpectedly affected by injuries to two of its top talents in Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

Randle posted career-best numbers across the board last year with the Pelicans, a line boosted further still following Anthony Davis’ post-trade-demand minutes reduction. It was Randle’s first season topping 20 points per game and also his first attempting volume 3-pointers, not only tripling his previous high with 2.7 3-pointers attempted but also shooting a career-best 34.4 percent from distance.

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Ten most intriguing free agents



We knew that the postseason would affect free agency. But the idea was that the success or failure of certain teams would affect what their free agents’ thoughts about staying or leaving.

Unfortunately, the last two games of The Finals brought devastating injuries to two of the three most coveted free agents on the market. Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in the world, tore his Achilles in Game 5, just 12 minutes into his return from a calf injury. And Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6.

The two injuries will certainly have repercussions beyond the two players and the Golden State Warriors. Maybe they already have. With the Western Conference seemingly wide open next season, the Los Angeles Lakers have reportedly made a deal for Anthony Davis, sending a bevy of young players and future picks to New Orleans so they can team the 26-year-old star with 34-year-old LeBron James … and maybe another star added in free agency.

As always, the free agent market and the trade market are tied together. The pending Davis trade could affect the decisions of players and teams come July 1. And if teams miss out on the free agents they’re seeking, they could always fill their cap space by making a trade.

With all that in mind, the players listed below aren’t necessarily the 10 best free agents (or potential free agents). They’re the 10 (actually 12) most interesting in regard to where they’re going and what kind of contract they get.

For players to be on this list, there needs to be some intrigue regarding their (and/or their team’s) decision this summer. That’s why Thompson isn’t included.

1. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto (Player option)

Whether he leaves or not, trading for Leonard last summer was well worth it for the Raptors, who won their first championship, with Leonard averaging 30.5 points per game in the postseason. The Raptors’ “load management” program (which limited Leonard to just 60 games in the regular season) clearly worked, and director of sports science Alex McKechnie should be seen as a major asset in the quest to keep Leonard in Toronto.

There should be a “run-it-back” sentiment for the new champs, with Danny Green also a free agent and Marc Gasol holding a player option this summer. A short-term deal would make sense, unless Leonard is looking for long-term security, having missed almost all of the 2017-18 season with a leg injury.

It’s all up to Leonard, maybe the toughest player in the league to read. If he takes his two-way talent elsewhere, the Raptors may have to go in a new direction.

Number to know: In the postseason, Leonard had a true shooting percentage of 69.1 percent, the highest mark for a player that averaged at least 30 points per game in the playoffs and won the championship.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State (Player option)

Durant’s torn Achilles probably won’t scare any team, including the Warriors, from paying him as much as possible. As deep and talented as this free agent class is, the top two guys on this list are in a class by themselves.

Rumors have long had Durant ready to leave Golden State and even with his injury, he seems more likely than Thompson to find a new home. But an ESPN report had Thompson’s father talking about “unfinished business” after overhearing a conversation between the two injured Warriors. Durant could always put free agency off for a year by exercising his player option and remaining on the Warriors’ payroll through his rehab.

Number to know: Durant was the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game in at least 10 playoff games while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line.

3. Kyrie Irving, Boston

The disappointment of the Celtics’ season, along with Irving’s questionable leadership with a group that underachieved, has taken some of the shine off his star. Irving’s injury history also must be taken into consideration.

The disappointment of the Celtics’ season took some of the shine off Kyrie’s star.

But talent is the most important thing in this league and Irving is one of its most talented players. He’s still just 27 years old and he can still get buckets when buckets are needed. A return to Boston appears far less likely than it did six months ago (especially with Davis being traded elsewhere) and there have been a lot of signals that Irving is bound for Brooklyn.

Number to know: In the regular season, Irving had an effective field goal percentage of 56.1 percent with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, the second-best mark among player with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.

4. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, Philadelphia

The Sixers lost to the eventual NBA champions on a Game 7 buzzer-beater that bounced on the rim four times before falling through. They’re right there. But their starting lineup, which outscored its opponents by more than 21 points per 100 possessions in 334 total minutes (regular season and playoffs), includes three free agents.

In regard to future assets, the Sixers didn’t give up as much for Butler as they did for Harris. And of course, Butler has more baggage in regard to accepting his role. But, with his defense and his ability to get his own shot, he’s is the most important of the three.

Harris struggled a bit in the conference semifinals against Toronto and is the least important of the Sixers’ three free-agent starters; J.J. Redick’s shooting was clearly more critical in the postseason. But Harris isn’t easily replaceable and he appears to be the most likely to leave, with a lot of teams looking for versatile forwards.

Number to know: In the regular season, Harris shot 41.3 percent on pull-up 3-pointers, the second-best mark among 69 players who attempted at least 100.

5. Kemba Walker, Charlotte

Walker has expressed some level of loyalty to the Hornets. But immediately after the Davis trade was agreed to, there was a report that Walker would be a “top target” of the Lakers with their cap space.

Walker would be an ideal offensive complement to James and Davis, in that he can play off the ball (though he shot less than 35 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season) and take some of the playmaking burden off of James’ shoulders. The Hornets, meanwhile, would likely have a tough time upgrading their roster around Walker, with Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller all under contract next season for a total of $85 million.

Number to know: Walker led the league with 126 field goal attempts with the score within five points in the last five minutes. That was 43 percent of the Hornets’ total (295). His effective field goal percentage on those shots (49.6 percent) ranked 15th among 45 players with at least 50 clutch field goal attempts.

6. D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn (Restricted)

A finalist for the Most Improved award, Russell took a big step forward this season, both in regard to his production and his maturity. He earned himself an All-Star appearance and helped the Nets reach the playoffs with a 14-win increase from last season. He’s only 23 years old and is one of the league’s most flammable shooters.

But because he doesn’t get to the basket or the free throw line very often, Russell is neither all that efficient (his true shooting percentage of 53.3 percent ranked 66th among 94 guards with at least 500 field goal attempts) nor consistent, and he struggled (shooting 36 percent) in Brooklyn’s first-round loss to Philadelphia. If the Nets are targeting another ball-handler in free agency (with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie already under contract), they’ll probably let Russell head elsewhere.

Number to know: In the regular season, Russell ranked second with 11.4 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game. He scored 0.89 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the 26th best mark among 44 players that averaged at least five ball-handler possessions.

7. DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney, Golden State

Cousins hadn’t made it back to 100 percent from his Achilles tear before he suffered a torn quad in his second career playoff game. He made it back for The Finals from that injury and showed flashes of his old self with 14 important points in the Warriors’ Game 5 win and a big bucket in the final minute of Game 6. But he also struggled on both ends of the floor at times, and the Warriors were outscored with him on the floor in seven of his eight playoff games. Now he goes back on the free agent market with teams still not sure of what they’re getting.

Because of DeMarcus Cousins’ injuries, teams will be unsure about what they’re getting.

Looney is an unrestricted free agent at 23 years old, and he was the Warriors’ most important center this season. The Western Conference champs have Looney’s Bird rights, but they could also be spending a lot of money to retain Durant and Thompson (and possibly extend Draymond Green). Another team might have a larger role and more money for an improving young big.

Number to know: In the regular season, the Warriors’ lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Looney scored 121.5 points per 100 possessions and outscored opponents by 18.7 per 100. Those were the best marks for points scored and point differential per 100 possessions among 40 league-wide lineups that played at least 200 minutes together.

8. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee (Restricted)

The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league through the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. But, with four of their top eight players being free agents (or potential free agents) this summer, they have a lot of work to do if they want to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo surrounded by players who can get it done on both ends of the floor.

Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are the three key pieces. They’re all due a pay raise and they all belong on this list. Brogdon is the restricted free agent, but he’s also the youngest of the three (he’ll be 27 in December) and the one that could be projected into a larger role on another team.

Number to know: Brogdon shot 47.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the third-best mark among 223 players who attempted at least 100.

9. Julius Randle, New Orleans (Player option)

After five years in the league, Randle is still just 24 years old. So he’s not necessarily a bad fit for David Griffin’s plans for the future in New Orleans. But the Pelicans might not be ready to commit the money Randle is seeking (should he opt out of the final year of his contract) after averaging a career-high 21.4 points per game. Defense remains an issue, but Randle has expanded his offensive skill set; he was a respectable 34.4 percent from 3-point range this season, taking 18 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (up from six percent over his three previous full seasons).

Number to know: Randle averaged 13.2 points in the paint per game, seventh most in the league, and he made more 3-pointers (67) than all but one of the six players in front of him.

10. Ricky Rubio, Utah

According to Rubio himself, he’s not Utah’s top priority in free agency. He remains a good defender and one of the league’s best passers, but the Jazz need to get more potent offensively if they’re going to take the next step. At 31.1 percent, Rubio ranked 153rd in 3-point percentage among 163 players with at least 200 attempts. There could be as many as 10 teams (not including the Jazz) in need of a starting point guard this summer, and Rubio could have more value on a team more in need of a distributor.

Number to know: The Jazz were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better offensively with both Rubio and Donovan Mitchell on the floor (scoring 110.4 per 100) than they were with Mitchell on the floor without Rubio (104.6).

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele ready to excel in reserve role



After a high school career in Canada that netted him zero U.S. college scholarship offers, Mfiondu Kabengeleheaded in the summer of 2015 to Don Bosco Institute — a prep school in Indiana with a reputation for helping connect players and colleges —  hoping to increase his exposure and his opportunities.

Suffice it to say he was a bit anxious.

So, when his first offer — from a mid-major school — came when the recruiting period opened in September, Kabengele, at the time a 6-foot-6 forward, wanted to jump on it. Luckily for Kabengele, cooler heads prevailed. Dave Maravilla, Don Bosco’s founder, convinced him to be patient, that his game was certain to improve and bigger schools, maybe even from power conferences, would take note. Maravilla was right.

Florida State assistant coach Dennis Gates, who played at Cal and earned a degree there in three years, has staked his reputation as a sharp and relentless recruiter by keeping his eyes and ears open and staying mobile: “always going into different gyms, just looking,” he says.

In 2015, Gates got tipped off about Kabengele — whose uncle is NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo — so he trekked to his native Chicago to see the player square off in a game against Kennedy-King, a junior college in the city’s South Side.

“I get there and see this kid, never backing down against tough, inner-city JUCO kids,” Gates says. “He was shooting, diving on the floor, rebounding, posting up. He had an inner toughness, resiliency and creativity. At 6-6, I thought he could make a good forward in the [Atlantic Coast Conference].”

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton gives his assistants unilateral authority to offer scholarships. Gates quickly decided Kabengele was worth pursuing.

Kabengele is the nephew of NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo.

“But I didn’t want anybody to know,” Gates says, laughing at the recollection. “I know the coach at Kennedy-King, Da’Veed Dildy, and after the game, he asked me what I was doing there. I said I was just checking guys out, and he said, ‘man, you’re here to see that kid we just played. Nobody comes to the Englewood community just to check guys out.’ ”

Gates was busted, but it didn’t matter. Other power conference schools eventually noticed Kabengele, too, but Florida State was the first to offer a scholarship, and that’s where he ended up.

“After our game, I see coach Gates in the locker room,” Kabengele says. “He said, I want to offer you a scholarship to FSU. My jaw dropped. You visualize this your whole life. I was shocked, frozen. That hit Twitter and my name got out there and bigger schools started recruiting. But coach Gates put his trust in me. His job was on the line if I’d turned out to be a bum. Of course I was going to go to FSU.”

By the time he showed up in Tallahassee, Kabengele was a different player than the one Gates first spotted. He’d grown four inches to 6-10 and weighed more than 250 pounds.

 “So he gets on campus,” Gates says, “and the first thing he said to me is ‘coach, I’m better than Jonathan Isaac [a 6-10 freshman who would become just the second FSU one-and-done player and was eventually the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft].’ So I say have you ever played against him, and he says, no, but I’ve watched him on YouTube. I thought, oh no, here we go again, another millennial.”

Eventually a one-on-one match was arranged between Kabengele and Isaac.

“Fi sprains his ankle trying to play Jonathan, who crossed him over. Fi couldn’t keep up. He comes back to my office and says, ‘coach, Jonathan’s a good player.’ ”

The lesson Kabengele learned that day was stored away and helped propel him to the brink of this week’s NBA Draft, where he’s been predicted to be taken anywhere from the late lottery to early second round.

Kabengele’s offensive numbers have risen steadily although he prides himself on rebounding and defense.

Florida State was so flush with talent when Kabengele was a freshman Hamilton and his staff encouraged him to redshirt. Suffice it to say Kabengele was reluctant.

“It was a hit to the ego,” he says. “You tell your friends you’re going to be the next superstar at Florida State, but we had Jonathan Isaac and so many pros on that team. The coaches knew redshirting would be better than playing one minute a game. You’re fragile at that stage.”

Fragile, and not in good enough physical condition to play in the ACC.

“He got here carrying too much weight,” says Stan Jones, a Florida State assistant and respected tactician who coaches the post players. “The first workout we did dunk drills. He couldn’t finish. We never quit here, so we made him finish the drill with a tennis ball. But even though he had to get in elite shape and had some skill improvement to do, you could see Fi was ready to accept challenges.”

Jones worked individually or had heart-to-heart conversations with Kabengele every chance he could, tweaking his jump shot mechanics, working on post moves, and perhaps most important, getting inside his head.

“We talked a lot about the mental game,” Kebengele says. “Stuff some of his players had trouble with in the past. But he let me figure things out for myself. He’d tell me a story about a player’s trials and tribulations and ask me, ‘what do you think he did right? What do you think he did wrong? What should he have done? I learned so much.”

He also learned a lot mimicking the opposing team’s best player while practicing as part of the scout team. “One time I was Jayson Tatum [Duke], another time I was Bonzie Colson [Notre Dame],” Kabengele says. “That was fun. [Clemson’s] Jaron Blossomgame was my favorite. I learned a lot of iso plays and guys zeroed in on me.”

Kabengele was ready by time he became eligible for the 2017-18 season. He became a key reserve on an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight team, averaging 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting .385 from 3-point range in 14.8 minutes a game.

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