In the NBA, who just got overpaid? And who got underpaid?

One of the best things about NBA Free Agency is witnessing the many athletes who have spent years toiling on blacktop courts in ignored corners get paid. Nothing wrong with hard-working people getting money legally. Isn’t that the American Dream? Playing armchair quarterback in group chats, comment threads, and…

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Kevin Durant wants a new team to front run for

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Hmmm, was the amount of research KD did simply looking at last year’s regular-season standings?

But, we know that Durant has pulled this act before. The first time he was open for wooing, he ended up on the greatest team of all-time, the 73-win Warriors that did that without him. He got a lot of plaudits and confirmation as a true NBA legend and a crunch-time hero for winning games in the Finals that the Dubs would have won without him. So too is his other big accomplishment, a Gold Medal in Tokyo, a bauble that Team USA likely would have found anyway.

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Durant tried to create his own power in Brooklyn, it didn’t work, and now he’s going back to the old playbook of just finding one already constructed. He wants the baby without the labor pains, which we all do in some way. Both the Suns and Heat would probably be stripped pretty heavily to acquire Durant, but that’s not his concern at the moment. And if they are, we’ll do all this again in two years.

And to be fair, Durant tried the hero thing the past couple springs. He couldn’t beat the Bucks alone in 2021, though he came awfully close. He couldn’t come anywhere close to beating the Celtics on his own this past spring. And perhaps that’s enough for him. This new road is awfully easier.

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But hey, as Homer Simpson told us, “If something is hard to do it’s not worth doing.” Durant tried to make the Nets something truly memorable, even noticeable, for the first time in their history. It didn’t work. So now he’s going back to what he knows, running the last lap of the race. Nice gig if you can get it.

Don’t mourn the NCAA being cut out

The main takeaway from USC and UCLA bolting for the Big 10 in two years, other than this:

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…is that this is just another big leap down the road to college football doing away with the NCAA. We’re getting to a point where the Big 10 and SEC will swallow up just about everything, and then they can just ask, “Why don’t we just have our two champions play one another and that’ll be the national champion?”

All the NCAA does now is just hold events and plan parties, and negotiate contracts for those, so why can’t these two conferences do it for themselves? Make them both 24 teams, and let them negotiate their own deals. It’s what the NCAA deserves. 

Kevin Durant wants out of Brooklyn, according to reports

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Durant’s interest makes restricted free agent Deandre Ayton a prime sign-and-trade candidate. Phoenix needed a lifeline this offseason. Their reluctance to sign Ayton to a five-year $177 million extension or match the four-year $131 million contract that other teams can sign him to put them in a tricky position. Given their tight championship window, Phoenix would do whatever it takes to slot Durant between Devin Booker, perimeter defensive pincer Mikal Bridges and Chris Paul as soon as possible. The Nets may demand Bridges as a sacrifice, but it’s one the Suns would make in a hot second.

The Portland Trail Blazers have been lobbying hard for Durant. Don’t be surprised if Mayor Ted Wheeler hosts a live press conference to woo KD to their title-starved hoops-obsessed city. Portland has the best formula of picks and young talent to sacrifice to the Altar of Durant while maintaining a roster deep enough to contend. They could throw multiple firsts, Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe in Brooklyn’s direction and both teams could be content. The Blazers might fight to keep Simons, but if it becomes a dealbreaker, his bags will be packed for him.

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The Lakers makes sense on paper. Durant joining LeBron would be the ultimate mashup. For years, they duked it out as the top-2 players in the league. They’ve both stumbled from their peaks, but their apex is so high, that they’re still consistently top-five players when they’re at their worst. From the Brooklyn Nets’ angle, Anthony Davis, 29, may have enough juice left in his tank to be an All-NBA big for another five years. His porcelain bones will always be a concern but when he’s healthy, he’s an elite, two-way velociraptor.

Miami got the cold shoulder from Jalen Brunson today after he signed a four-year $110M deal with the Knicks, but re-inserted themselves into the Durant discussions.

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However, the Heat don’t own a first-round pick until 2024 and can’t give up consecutive firsts because of The Stepien Rule, which prevents teams from being without first-round picks in consecutive drafts. For Brooklyn to surrender a player of Durant’s caliber they’d likely ask for Bam Adebayo. The Nets would be precluded from swapping Durant for Adebayo because of an obscure rule that prevents teams from having two players who were acquired via trades while they’re on Designated Rookie Extension contracts. After trading for Ben Simmons at the trade deadline, the only way Adebayo could wind up on the Nets is if Simmons were traded. That’s not outside the realm of possibilities, but unlikely because his trade stock is in the basement.

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Yet, where there’s a will there’s a way. NBA execs have written the book on twisting through corporate loopholes, but just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

Two point-centers as the focal point of the Nets lineup for the next few years is as problematic as Embiid and Simmons plodding through the rush hour traffic in the paint. However, a three-team trade in which Durant is whisked off to Miami, Bam shipped to another team, who traded their superstar to Brooklyn would be amenable to Miami and Brooklyn. Finding that third team is easier said than done.

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The Nets will have a pile of options to review. Ultimately, wherever Durant ends up will upend the league.

It’s time to stop kicking the word ‘superstar’ around the NBA like it’s a game of hacky sack

Basketball Superstars for Shaq

You won’t find many people that disagree with the Hall of Famers’ statement. I might add one or two names to that list, but it certainly isn’t as long as some folks would have you believe. Luka Dončić was crowned by some two years ago as a superstar. I needed to see him lead the Mavs past the first round of the playoffs before I could even consider it. Luka went a step further and carried Dallas to the western conference finals. So, I’m okay with adding Dončić to the list.

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Borderline (Madonna voice)

It feels like I’m going to lose my mind over all these supposed superstars. After about four or five players, we get into murky water in this debate. Can we still consider Kawhi Leonard a superstar? How about Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić? Embiid and Jokic were the frontrunners for league MVP most of the season, with the latter winning. That made Jokić a back-to-back MVP.

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For most people, that’s enough. Winning two MVP awards in a row is one hell of an accomplishment. Including Jokić, only 14 players in the history of the NBA have won consecutive MVP awards. Three of those guys did it a third time. So, it’s hard not to include Jokić on the superstar list, but when you follow up a great season by getting bounced in the first round of the postseason, that decision becomes much easier.

Before you denounce everything I’ve said, think about this. Go back a decade-plus and think about current Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash. He won back-to-back MVP awards in the mid-2000s. Nash was a great player but never considered a superstar. That’s how I see Jokić right now. He’s a darling among the analytics community, but what did all those pretty numbers accomplish when it was “show me” time? Nikola and the Nuggets went home early.

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Embiid is another one that I think many of us want to be included in the superstar conversation. Joel had his best year in ‘21-22, winning a scoring title, averaging over 30 ppg, and he played in 68 games. That’s the most games Embiid has played in a season since he entered the league. Ultimately, two things are keeping Embiid on the borderline of the superstar/star discussion: 1.) Availability 2.) He’s yet to lead the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Others

With the level of talent in the NBA today, just about everyone is capable of posting gaudy statistics based on their role with a team. DeMar DeRozan averaged nearly 28ppg for Chicago this year after falling off the map in San Antonio the previous two seasons. No one is mistaking DeRozan for a superstar despite the fantastic season he just finished. Most people felt Embiid should’ve won MVP anyway.

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I think it’s close for Embiid and Jokić, but I’ve got both big men on the outside looking in. Yes, in the Orlando bubble a couple of years ago, Jokić got the Nuggets to the conference finals. But since that WCF appearance, the Nuggets haven’t gone past the semi-finals, and Jokić won his MVPs in those two campaigns. It’s splitting hairs, but I’ve got Embiid and Jokić on the cusp of superstardom.

Then we’ve got a player like Leonard, who was viewed as a bonafide superstar at one point. But if availability is part of the formula that keeps Embidd out of the club, then we’ve got to show some consistency. When healthy, Kawhi is one of the five best players in the NBA because of what he brings offensively and defensively. Although he’s no longer the defender he was a few years ago, he was still considered a top two-way player before his ACL injury in the 2021 playoffs. Until Kawhi proves he’s still one of the top five players in the league, he’s coming off the list.

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James Harden is another player that was included in this conversation for years, and now he’s more of an afterthought. Anthony Davis has been called a top-five talent since he entered the NBA but hasn’t been able to creep into that superstar category.

Davis played great in 2020 when the Lakers won it all in the bubble, but LeBron was the main driving force on that team like he’s always been. The following year when James was ready to hand over the keys to Davis, he wasn’t prepared for the transition. The most significant issues with Davis have been health and not stepping up and leading when it’s been his time.

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Jayson Tatum flirted with the superstar label this year but ultimately was too inconsistent during their playoff run to plant his flag on that mountain. Trae Young is another young star who could be next in line to become a superstar, but he’s not there yet. I’ve heard Donovan Mitchell’s name mentioned as a superstar over the last couple of years, and I just can’t agree. He’s an outstanding player. Not a superstar.

Damian Lillard is another one who’s right there, and just when it looked like he might have made that crossover into superstar status, he gets hurt and misses more than half the season. Lillard played in about as many games as Kyrie Irving did this season. Lillard was injured, and Irving lives in outer space. But Lillard is much closer to superstar status than Irving will ever be. But due to the rough start last season, then only playing 29 games, Dame is just outside the superstar tier.

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So What Defines a Superstar?

All the players mentioned can be deemed exceptional, but I don’t think a few great moments make one a superstar. Doing it as the lead player on a team, year after year, is what does it. Winning awards and accolades are a factor, without a doubt, but team success means just as much, and probably more.

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The four players that Shaq mentioned have all won rings, regular-season MVP, and Finals MVP awards. LeBron, Giannis, Steph, and KD are bonafide NBA superstars. There’s no debating that. I added Luka to the group, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for leaving him off. Right now, he doesn’t have any of the accolades mentioned above. But I think he’ll get there in time.

Superstar should be reserved for the best of the best; in the same way, the term “great team” should also be preserved. Since 2010 there have only been two truly great teams in the NBA. The Miami Heat of the early 00s with James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. Then the Golden State Warriors later in the same decade.

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That’s it. Those were the only teams to win more than one championship that decade. And both teams had superstars leading their squads. The same rule applies to the term superstar. If so many superstars exist in the league, then the word’s meaning no longer carries the same effect. 

Another day, another unhinged LIV press conference

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DeChambeau actually does appear to believe that golf is the balm that heals all wounds, saying in his press conference, “Golf is a force for good, and I think as time goes on, hopefully people will see the good that they are doing and what they are trying to accomplish rather than looking at the bad that’s happened before. I think moving on from that is important, and going and continuing to move forward in a positive light is something that could be a force for good for the future of the game.” Woof.

To posit that golf is so deeply, morally, fundamentally “good” that it can erase “the bad that’s happened before” (that’s one way to put it, Bryson) is ridiculous. First of all, golf is a notoriously exclusive sport, with clubs that to this day ban women and exclude minorities through “unwritten rules,” and one in which very few athletes actually use their platforms to speak out for causes they believe in, compared to, say, NBA or NFL players. It’s a lie they’re telling themselves, that somehow “growing the game of golf” is actually such a net positive on the world that anyone who does it must be doing so for the greater good.

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What changed for Koepka since his initial denials? “Just my opinion, man,” per the man himself. (Yeah, I bet your opinion changed real quick when you saw the zeroes on that check.) “But, look, like we said, our only job is to go play golf, and that’s all we’re trying to do,” he continued. “We’re trying to grow the game, do all this other stuff. And we’re trying the best we can.”

The Schedule Excuse

Aside from growing the game, another line we’re being fed is in regard to the appeal of the LIV schedule. With 10 tournaments this year and 14 scheduled for next year, Koepka said that it would give him more recovery time between tournaments after suffering multiple injuries in the past few years, and Perez talked about missing the birth of his son for a PGA event. (Sorry, but does he think he’d just be able to up and leave a required LIV event in a similar situation?)

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The interesting thing about this is that while there are less tournaments in LIV, they’re all required, while the PGA Tour largely allows golfers to set their own schedule.

“You’re able to actually now set out a schedule, go out and put all you have in every single event,” Reed said. It’s an odd way to put it — you’re no longer able to set a schedule, actually. They set it for you. While the PGA Tour has event minimums and new event requirements, it’s also odd for a professional athlete — or multiple, in this case — in their prime to claim that they actually want to play less of their sport. Also, if they end up playing the majors, the LIV golfers will only end up playing three less weeks per year than it takes to meet the requirements of the PGA Tour.

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Reed also averages 30 events per year, whereas his peers like Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm average 24 per year. Koepka averaged 20 per year between 2015 and 2021, and with 14 LIV events and 4 majors going forward, his excuses from yesterday quickly fell through.

Please, please. I’m begging you. Just say it’s the money. Because it is the money. You don’t have to win — hell, you don’t have to play — to earn the millions that LIV is offering. But just admit it. 

USMNT Under-20 men’s team brawls with Costa Rican team

The pushing and shoving reached a tipping point after the final whistle of the USA’s 2-0 victory. American forward Cade Cowell is seen waving goodbye to a Costa Rican player, due to Los Ticos missing the U-20 World Cup. Cowell is charged by the incensed player, starting a melee between the teams.

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The Fox Sports cameras show the opening moments of the post-game confrontation, before quickly cutting to other celebrations. A few seconds later, every player from both teams and CONCACAF officials are involved. Back in the area where the chaos began, US midfielder Niko Tsakiris is down on the pitch looking confused. Several smaller skirmishes break out from there.

More kicks, with studded cleats on, can be seen thrown by players than punches, most instigated by the eliminated Costa Ricans. The whole dust-up lasted less than a minute and no one appeared to be hurt from the fight. No supplemental disciplinary action has been announced by CONCACAF or US Soccer. Then again, neither organization has released a statement about the extracurriculars. I guess that post-game “passion” is ok’ed by CONCACAF, with important games becoming more contentious by the year?

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The game aired on FS2 and didn’t impact the United States senior national team’s status for the World Cup in Qatar. And the near-brawl has had next-to-no publicity. This isn’t a sweep-it-under-the-rug scenario. Someone could’ve been seriously hurt and it’s a minor miracle no one was. As Deadspin’s Carron Phillips wrote yesterday, athletes who play outside the confines of the NBA and NFL too frequently get a pass for their on-field fights, while those who brawl in predominantly Black sports get labeled “thugs” and their conduct pointed to as some ill-defined example of societal decay. So where was all the pearl-clutching about “thugs” on the U-20 teams?

As evidenced by the end of the video with the team standing together, the crop of USA U-20s may be ethnically diverse, but pales in comparison to the Black representation of the NFL and NBA. Should the Yanks look more like the Lakers or Patriots, you can bet Tuesday night’s melee would’ve drawn more mainstream attention. Instead, the incident didn’t move a single needle.

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Those wearing the US crest aren’t just teenagers either. From the Americans’ 2019 U-20 World Cup squad, the last time the event was held, 11 have gone on to represent the USA at the senior level. They include Sergino Dest and Tim Weah, who are locks to be on Gregg Berhalter’s squad in Qatar. Paxten Aaronson, who scored both American goals against Costa Rica, is the younger brother of USMNT mainstay Brenden Aaronson. The US U-20s return to action on Friday against Honduras with a berth to the 2024 Summer Olympics at stake. The fighting will be optional. 

Le’Veon Bell and Adrian Peterson will continue the tradition of retired pro athletes turned boxers this summer

Most recently, we’ve seen Frank Gore leave the gridiron, throw on a pair of boxing gloves, and get it on. In his first bout, he fought former NBA point guard Deron Williams. Gore lost that bout via split decision only to return to the ring a few months later, on his birthday, to claim his first professional victory in the ring.

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And everyone remembers Nate Robinson, albeit in a celebrity boxing setting, running into the ring and swiftly being shown the exit. While Peterson and Bell should be closer to the same experience level, this fight might be just as big a disaster as Robinson’s nap on the canvas.

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I’m not mad at Bell, Peterson, or any other former pro athlete who decides this is the route they want to take once their primary sports career ends. But we don’t want to see these guys get in the ring and look like has-beens. I’m sure there isn’t anyone besides the two fighters who expect this fight to resemble anything close to a boxing clinic.

If someone is willing to pay these amateur fighters who just happen to be former pro athletes large sums of money to get in the ring, then I say go for it. Because the truth is, once most of these athletes retire for good from their sport, that’s usually it. Once that spotlight disappears, it doesn’t return for the overwhelming majority.

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There are always a few exceptions, like Michael Jordan, LeBron James (once he retires), Charles Barkley, Deion Sanders, and probably even Tom Brady once he officially calls it quits. And then some choose the media route upon retiring, but even then, most of them fade into the background sooner than later.

Getting into boxing immediately after retirement is another way for guys who are used to a certain level of physicality to still be physical and get paid for it. I’m just hoping they take it seriously and approach boxing with the same intensity and vigor they did their respective sport.

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I’m interested to see how long it takes for either Peterson or Bell to get tired and drop their hands. While they’re pro athletes, football and boxing training are different beasts. It’s easy to get hurt on the field or court, but it’s even easier in a fight sport like boxing, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is just the beginning, especially with NFL players jumping from field to ring. Now that there’s a lane and obvious audience for this, I think we’ll see at least one or two retired NFLers announce their boxing debut during the next handful of offseasons. If someone funds it, they will come. You can bet on that.

John Wall got a Brinks truck full of money from a bad team, now he gets to join a contender in LA

Wall’s buyout from the Rockets will pay him nearly $41 million of the $47 million he would’ve gotten to play for Houston in 2022-23. Houston is now done with Wall, free to continue its rebuild, and Wall’s path back to the court is suddenly clear. He gets most of the money he’s owed by Houston, and he gets to sing and play for a contender this year in the LA Clippers. Once he clears waivers, of course.

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You couldn’t dream up a much sweeter deal than what Wall’s come across. Wall now joins a Clippers team that was two wins away from playing in the NBA Finals just two seasons ago. If not for injuries to Paul George and Kawhi Leonard this past season, who knows how far the Clippers could’ve gone.

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The only mystery about this deal is what’s expected from Wall after missing 40 games last season. It’s been five years since Wall has played anything close to an entire NBA campaign, when he played 78 games for Washington during the ‘16-17 season. Since then, he hasn’t played more than 41 games. Within that time, Wall has missed two full seasons (‘19-20 & ‘21-22) and dealt with multiple leg and foot injuries.

So this situation in Los Angeles with the Clippers might be the best scenario for Wall to make a complete comeback. There won’t be any pressure for him to come in and make a huge impact right away. The Clippers’ top priority is getting Leonard back on the floor and being as close as possible to the player he once was as he returns from an ACL tear suffered two postseasons ago.

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With George and Leonard handling the scoring load along with Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, and others, the Clippers adding Wall rounds out a nice supporting cast for their two stars. If Wall can come in and be the primary ball-handler and playmaker, this could work out for the best. The Clippers won’t need Wall to score 20 ppg, and if he can settle into a lesser scoring role, this team could potentially be the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors in the west next year.

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The biggest issue for LA is likely to be one that’s lingered for the last couple of years. Their perceived lack of leadership on the court. We know what kind of leadership the Clippers possess on the bench with head coach Tyronn Lue, but in-game leadership is what they’ve lacked since acquiring Leonard and George. Kawhi has never been too vocal, and George hasn’t always been seen as a leader.

If Wall can be quickly acclimated into this Clippers system plus a healthy Leonard and George for a full season, then we could be looking at the next “big three” in the NBA. There’s still a long way to go before these scenarios play out, but it’s fun to dream. 

If I’m Victor Wembanyama, I’m all good on being called a unicorn

Victor Wembanyama vs USA U19 22 PTS 8 BLKS 7.11.21

That highlight reel produces more questions than answers because at his size, his potential is limitless. (My other pressing question from that clip is, who is No. 11 for the US, and can he please get some more post touches?) The 18-year-old Frenchman might actually be the I spliced offspring comp that Kendrick Perkins conjured up for Holmgren during his five minutes of draft prep.

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There’s no question that he qualifies for a unicorn designation, which is as encouraging as it is concerning. In no other sport does this notion of a unicorn exist. Sure, football has plenty of athletic specimens, but there’s a height limit due to the need for leverage. It’s the same thing for baseball and other sports where height doesn’t have a huge advantage.

If we really want to have an honest conversation about unicorns, it’s just a term for a big man who can do more than what we expect from a stereotypical center. Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokić, and Joel Embiid are startling in the same way that any step of evolution is startling. We’re beginning to see more and more of them, and that’s great for a league with a storied history of larger-than-life superstars.

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However, the resurgence comes with a caveat. For every Giannis or Kevin Durant, there’s a Porziņģis, a Zion Williamson, or an Anthony Davis. While objectively great when healthy, the durability and ability to return from major injuries is troubling. If these unicorns slip even one iota athletically it’s catastrophic because there’s no hiding players on defense anymore.

The Zinger went from savior of New York to a trade partner for Spencer Dinwiddie and David Bertans in the span of a torn ACL. And the biggest reason for his decline was a loss of mobility. There are very few NBA offenses that allow opponents to play lumbering big men. Controlling the paint doesn’t matter if it comes at the expense of open 3s, and drop coverage is as useful as an ’80s enforcer.

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That’s also not accounting for the worst-case scenario. Michael Porter Jr.’s back has his future — at least from a “maximizing his potential” point of view — in jeopardy. It feels like a miracle that Embiid’s career survived all of his injuries. Ben Simmons even had his own back issues with the Nets last year. I know Simmons and MPJ aren’t new-age bigs like their unicorn counterparts; I’m just reiterating the health risks that come with being that large and playing a professional sport.

I don’t care how fluid Wembanyama’s handle is, or how smooth his jumper looks — he still feels like a branch that could easily snap under duress. That was the concern for Holmgren, and despite being 30-40 pounds heavier than the former Gonzaga Bulldog, it’s impossible to watch Victor and not wonder about the lifespan of his body.

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It’s unfair to call Wembanyama “Rudy Gobert with a jumper,” but it’s also an exaggeration to say he’s Giannis 2.0. He’s somewhere in between, and his upside still warrants a No. 1 overall selection and the unicorn label.

That said, for these mythological creatures, being that tall and that talented isn’t a gift and a curse — it’s a gift or a curse. 

It’s appears there is a new and improved Luka Dončić playing for Slovenia

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There are two major concerns with Dončić’s game. They are his defense and his offseason conditioning. Slovenia lost the bronze medal game in the Olympics on August 7, 2021, and Dončić still showed up to Mavericks training camp in late September out of shape. It took him about a month of regular season play to get into NBA basketball shape, and he even admitted in December that he needed to do better.

That picture of him on Saturday looks like he’s had the most successful month of offseason conditioning in the history of professional sports. However, that picture belongs in a promotional packet for a movie release. The light is hitting him perfectly as he heads to the bench after a stint on the court. If I worked in the Mavericks ticket office, that picture would be on everything I send out on all renewal information for season ticket holders, and in all of the emails I send to people who purchased single-game tickets to try and get them to buy larger packages.

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While Dončić is clearly in better shape, he has not had enough time to make a Nikola Jokić-level slim down and add muscle definition. In other offseason pictures his face looks smaller and his arms are certainly more toned. He is much leaner than he was during the NBA season, but he’s not built like Peloton instructor instructor just yet.

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However, not only is he leaner than he was during the season, as Slovenia gets ready for FIBA World Cup qualifier competition, he looks completely different than he did last year during the Olympics. He was far from out of shape then, leading Slovenia to within one Nicolas Batum block from playing against the United States in the gold medal game. Dončić was certainly nowhere near the 260 pounds that he was reported to show up to training camp weighing a month later, but his face looked much different then.

The 2022-23 season will be Dončić’s fifth in the NBA. He tasted playoff victory for the first time, and maybe that — and a little shame from early last season — is what he needs to take another major step forward as one of the best players in the league. His talent is undeniable, but as good as he is, in the NBA talent can only take a player to a certain point. Stephen Curry showed in this NBA postseason what a great conditioning program will do. He completely transformed his body from not being able to hold a basketball jersey on his shoulders, to using those shoulders to absorb contact and be able to hold his own on defense against bigger perimeter players. Curry can do all of that and is still able to bury 3-pointers late in games, late in the season, and later in his career.

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It’s the step that all players have to take when they want to make the transition from great to all-time great. Dončić appears well on his way in June, let’s see what he looks like in September.