‘Russian-made missile’ crashes into Turkish Cyprus

A suspected Russian-made missile has crashed north of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, Turkish Cypriot officials said.

The explosion occurred at around 1am on Monday (22:00 GMT on Sunday), in the Tashkent region, also known as Vouno, about 19km north of Nicosia.

According to Turkish Cypriot broadcaster BRT, Prime Minister Ersin Tatar said no one was hurt in the explosion and that firefighting crews had contained a blaze that the burning debris had ignited.

Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minisiter Kudret Ozersay said it was believed that the missile may have been fired as part of a Syrian anti-aircraft system.

“The first assessment is that a Russian-made missile, which was part of the air defence system that took place last night in the face of an air attack against Syria, completed its range and fell into our country after it missed,” Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Ozersay said in a Facebook post on Monday.

Cyprus is located around 193km west of Syria, where Israeli warplanes struck Syrian military positions on Monday morning, killing at least four civilians and wounding 21 others, according to state media.

Mustafa Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader, earlier linked the incident to military operations in the Middle East but further investigations were under way by the military to establish what it was.

A light in the sky

“It is evident it is not something stemming from our soil … It is one of the bad sides of the war in the region falling into our country,” he said.

Police cordoned off the field where the object landed and nearby villages where debris has been found.

Tatar said Turkish military authorities may assist in the investigation.

A Greek Cypriot military analyst, Andreas Pentaras, said the debris suggested it was a Russian-made S-200 missile.

“An assessment from the pictures made public shows the base of its wings. It has Russian writing on it, so it suggests it is Russian made. Syria uses Russian-made missiles, so a not-so-safe assessment would be it was … an S-200 [missile],” Pentaras, a retired army general, told Sigma TV in Cyprus.

Jamming technology could have diverted the missile, he said.

Residents told Cypriot media they saw a light in the sky then three loud explosions were heard for miles around.

Tashkent is a small village in the foothills of a mountain range rimming northern Cyprus. Authorities evacuated some homes.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The country’s internationally recognised government is seated in the Greek Cypriot south.

Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and keeps more than 35,000 troops in the north.

Cypriot Defence Minister Savvas Angelides said government authorities are investigating the blast but refrained from speculating on its cause.

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Israel settlements funded by US duty free tycoons

When travelers shop at dozens of duty free shops at airports worldwide, they may be paying for more than a bottle of vodka or box of chocolates.

The Falic family of Florida, owners of the ubiquitous chain of Duty Free Americas shops, funds a generous and controversial philanthropic empire in Israel that runs through the corridors of power and stretches deep into the occupied West Bank.

An Associated Press investigation has found that the family has donated at least $5.6m to settler organisations in theoccupied West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past decade, funding synagogues, schools and social services as well as far-right causes considered extreme even in Israel.

The Falics’ philanthropy is not limited to the settlements. They support many mainstream causes in the US and Israel. However, they are a key example of how wealthy US donors have bolstered the contentious settlement movement.

Critics say activities billed as harmless philanthropy have come at the expense of Palestinians.

Under international law, settlements built in the occupied territories are illegal. While most of the world considers Jewish settlements to be obstacles to peace, Israel considers the occupied territories “disputed”.

Hebron settlements

Perhaps the Falics’ most controversial activity is in Hebron, a city where several hundred ultranationalist settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves amid some 300,000 Palestinians.

The Falics support the ultranationalist Jewish community in Hebron, whose members include several prominent followers of Meir Kahane, a late rabbi banned from Israeli politics for his racist views. Kahane’s Kach party was was outlawed in Israel in the 1980s for calling for a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the country, and is designated by the US as a “terrorist” organisation.

According to The Associated Press investigation, the Falics donated roughly $600,000 to “Hachnasat Orchim Hebron,” a group that hosts visitors to the Jewish community. Baruch Marzel, a former aide to Kahane, is deeply involved.


An Israeli soldier watches Palestinian schoolchildren head home from school in the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron in occupied West Bank [File: Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press]

Simon Falic, who spoke to The Associated Press on behalf of his family, said his connections to Marzel were primarily through a “beautiful project” that distributes snacks to Israeli soldiers protecting the residents of Hebron.

“While I may not agree with everything he has said, the work we have done that has been affiliated with the Hebron community has been positive, non-controversial and enhances Jewish life in the Hebron area — which we strongly support,” he said.

Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron, disagrees. He said the seemingly harmless project serves the settler cause at the expense of Palestinians.

Israel names illegal Golan settlement after Trump 2:49

“We are suffering from settler violence,” he said. “When I tell the soldiers ‘protect me,’ they tell me ‘we are not here to protect you. We are with our own people, who are the settlers.’”

‘Third temple’

Duty Free Americas is headed by three Falic brothers: Simon, Jerome and Leon. The chain operates over 180 stores at airports and border crossings in the US and Latin America. Leon Falic told the trade publication TRBusiness that the privately held company last year posted over $1.65bn in sales.

The family has two main charitable organisations, the US-based Falic Family Private Foundation and the Segal Foundation in Israel. During the decade ending in 2017, the US foundation distributed about $20m to “various worldwide Jewish organisations,” according to tax filings.

The Falics back Jewish groups that covertly buy up Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem, and they helped develop an unauthorised settlement outpost in the occupied West Bank. The outpost was later retroactively legalised.

The family has also supported groups that are pushing for the establishment of a “Third Temple” for Jews at the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in the old city of Jerusalem. Referred to byJews as the Temple Mount, it is the most contested site in the old city. 

They also have given more money than any other donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong supporter of settlements, and have donated to other leaders of his Likud party.

Simon Falic said Jews should be able to live anywhere, whether it’s Israel, Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem or the West Bank. He condemned violence and claimed none of the groups he supports does anything illegal under Israeli law.

“We are proud to support organisations that help promote Jewish life all over the land of Israel,” said Falic. “The idea that the mere existence of Jewish life in any geographical area is an impediment to peace makes no sense to us.”

‘A pillar of the settlement enterprise’ 

Since capturing the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, the settler population has grown to about 700,000 people, roughly 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population.

In recent years, it has received a boost from Netanyahu’s pro-settler government and from a far more tolerant attitude by US President Donald Trump, whose top Middle East advisers are longtime settlement supporters.

This growth has been fueled in part by fundraising arms for leading settlement groups in the US. According to a past investigation of US tax forms by the Israeli daily Haaretz, fundraising organisations in the US raised more than $230m for settlement causes between 2009 and 2013 alone.

“Far-right foreign donors are a pillar of the settlement enterprise,” said Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group.

Other prominent settlement donors include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, US billionaire Ira Rennert, American financier Roger Hertog and the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Names of dozens of other lesser-known donors adorn buildings, playgrounds and even park benches throughout the occupied West Bank.

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Trump’s House allies lie in wait for Mueller

Jim Jordan

Rep. Jim Jordan, along with several of President Donald Trump’s other allies in the House, will press on former special counsel Robert Mueller when he testifies before Congress this month. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Democrats aren’t the only ones in Congress dying to hear from the former special counsel.

Democrats have been dying to hear directly from special counsel Robert Mueller for months, but they’re not alone. President Donald Trump’s GOP allies in Congress are salivating at the chance to bruise Mueller’s reputation and cast doubt on the integrity of his work.

Mueller’s intensely anticipated July 17 testimony will bring him face to face with the Republican lawmakers who have savaged his reputation and called him the ringleader of a “coup” against Trump. While Democrats attempt to squeeze morsels of new information out of the notoriously tight-lipped investigator, these Trump defenders are signaling that they’ll use the historic moment to try to undercut his credibility and paint him as a political pawn in Democrats’ efforts to undermine the president.

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“He’s done some irreparable damage to some things and he’s got to answer for them,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, one of 25 Republicans on the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees who get to grill Mueller during the back-to-back hearings. The Texas congressman added that his reading of the special counsel’s report did little to temper his long history of animosity for the former FBI director: “It reinforced the anal opening that I believe Mueller to be.”

Many House Republicans on the committees set to interview him have actually supported Mueller in the past, even if they’ve criticized his Russia investigation; they’ve sought to separate the man — a senior Justice Department appointee dating to the George H.W. Bush administration and Marine Corps veteran — from the probe.

But Mueller will also face a grilling from Trump’s top Republican allies in Congress, including Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Andy Biggs (Ariz.). They intend to press him on long-held articles of Trumpian faith: that Mueller’s team was biased against the president from the start and that the Russia investigation was tainted by inappropriate surveillance.

It’s one of the uncomfortable realities for Mueller, who is reluctantly coming to Capitol Hill under subpoena, despite telling lawmakers he intends to say nothing beyond the words in his 448-page report, which described a Trump campaign eager to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“It becomes reader’s theatre,” predicted Biggs, a member of the Judiciary Committee. When pressed on whether he thought the high-profile hearing could backfire for Democrats, the Arizona Republican replied with a smile: “I certainly hope so.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” he added.

Back when Democrats were still hopeful they’d be able to secure the special counsel’s testimony voluntarily, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, even released a statement calling on Chairman Jerry Nadler to seek Mueller’s testimony. He called the aftermath of his report “a critical moment in our country’s history.”

In his report, Mueller indicated that he lacked evidence to charge any American with conspiring with Russians, but he detailed more than 100 contacts between Trump associates and Russian operatives. Mueller also laid out damning evidence of Trump’s attempts to interfere in the special counsel’s investigation.

Democrats hope to use the moment to bring Mueller’s findings mainstream. They’ve lamented that since Mueller’s redacted final report became public in mid-April, few Americans have actually read the document; instead it has been filtered through the lens of TV newscasts and cable punditry. A growing contingent of House Democrats who favor launching impeachment proceedings against Trump, largely because of what Mueller found, say they hope his on-camera recitation of his findings accomplish what the last two months haven’t.

But Republicans preparing over the next two-plus weeks to question Mueller say they have their own points they hope to drive home to Americans as well. Several indicated they intend to press Mueller on when he first determined he lacked evidence to charge Americans with conspiring with Russia — insinuating, without evidence, that he allowed suspicions to linger long after he had shifted his focus to the obstruction of justice investigation.

“The obvious question is the one that everyone in the country wants to know: when did you first know there was no conspiracy, coordination or collusion?” said Jordan, one of the Republicans’ fiercest investigators. “How much longer did it take Bob Mueller to figure that out? Did he intentionally wait until after 2018 midterms, or what?”

Mueller emphasized in his report that he did not make a finding on “collusion,” since it’s not a legal term, and that his decision not to bring charges didn’t mean he found no evidence of them.

Republicans have also questioned whether Mueller’s team was biased against Trump — or at least appeared that it was — because of the presence of officials who had either donated to Democratic candidates or privately criticized Trump. They’ve highlighted unearthed text messages from longtime FBI agent Peter Strzok, who helped initiate the investigation of the Trump campaign, in which he repeatedly blasted Trump. Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team early on, after his texts were discovered.

“How did he handle all that? What did he ask Mr. Strzok?” Jordan said he intends to ask. “Did he really check into how biased he was and how it impacted his work? I think that’s a pretty good line of questioning.”

Republicans say they intend to huddle and devise a full strategy ahead of the Mueller hearing. Still, they’ve already signaled that they want to press the former special counsel on how the so-called Steele Dossier factored into his work. Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele compiled the document in 2016, describing salacious allegations about a years-long conspiracy between Trump and Russians. During the last presidential campaign, the opposition research firm Fusion GPS hired Steele, who had a longtime relationship with the FBI on Russia-related matters, to scrutinize Trump. Steele also passed his findings on to the FBI, which later used them to help obtain a surveillance warrant on a Trump campaign associate, Carter Page.

Steele’s work is mentioned more than a dozen times in the redacted version of Mueller’s final report, and Republicans say they want to know more about how Mueller viewed it and whether it informed any of his findings.

“That’s such an important part of this whole thing,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “I would’ve thought he’d have wanted to know more about that.”

Republicans should be wary of overreaching in their questioning of Mueller, Capitol Hill and Justice Department veterans say. Mueller, who led the FBI under both a Republican and Democratic president, has long enjoyed bipartisan support. And he’ll be ready to parry any of the flak that GOP lawmakers send his way.

“Bob will stick with Marine-like discipline to his battle plan of staying within the four corners of his report. Members will say much more with their statements than he will say with his answers,” said Paul McNulty, who was a deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration Justice Department while Mueller was FBI Director. He also served as a U.S. attorney and as a House Judiciary GOP aide during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings.

Sam Sokol, a former top House Judiciary Committee Democratic counsel, said Republicans are asking for trouble if they travel down rabbit holes in their questioning.

“I think Mueller will be extremely prepared,” he said. “He’ll present factually compelling — and my guess would be an emotionally powerful — defense of the good faith and patriotism of his team.”

“I think the claims of bias or flawed procedures or misuse of the FISA court that have been made, as far as I’ve seen, don’t have a credible foundation and I think Mueller will be able to expose how small and political those charges are, especially when put up against the gravity of the attack on our election and foreign interference on our democracy that his report documents,” Sokol said.

Michael Zeldin, who served as Mueller’s special counsel when he was assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said Mueller “has to prepare for a Republican onslaught, which could backfire if Mueller is on his game.”

“He gets impatient, agitated, and he’s not one who abides fools lightly. But I can’t imagine the GOP questioning will make him nervous, because there’s there nothing to expose,” said Zeldin, who added that he’s never seen Mueller get nervous.

Other longtime observers of presidential scandal also see Republicans costing Trump politically if they push Mueller in ways that don’t make sense to that small sliver of independent, swing-vote Americans who haven’t yet made up their mind about the significance of the Russia investigation by the time the hearing rolls around later this month.

“Ironically, the thing that might hurt the president the most is the tea party people who will ask Mueller probably the most hostile questions,” said Steven Brill, a veteran journalist who covered Clinton’s impeachment and later founded the cable channel Court TV. “It seems to me the most likely drama is they’re going to step in it by asking some hostile questions not based in anything.”

Still, some Republicans are betting that Democrats will fumble, as congressional investigators have thus far failed to land any major blows on Trump. Democrats were mercilessly mocked by the GOP for hauling in former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean during their first hearing on the Mueller report, while others criticized Democrats for gleaning little information from former Trump aide Hope Hicks during her recent closed-door testimony.

“The Democrats have tried impeachment lite for two months. They’ve tried hearings. They brought John Dean. They brought a cavalcade of circus stars and nothing’s changed,” said Collins. “It’s still the report.”

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With D-Lo to Warriors, Lakers Playing High-Risk Poker Waiting for Kawhi Leonard

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard speaks at a news conference alongside the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Ben Margot/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The first night of NBA free agency overflowed with blockbuster deals. One by one, top names came off the board like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler (assuming the sign-and-trade to Miami eventually goes through). Not a peep out of Los Angeles on the Lakers.

Word that D’Angelo Russell would sign (via trade) with the Golden State Warriors erased the Lakers’ backup plan. At this point, it’s Kawhi Leonard or nothing.

The Lakers are playing a high-stakes game of poker. They could have tried to go all-in on Russell or any of the other big names, but they held their cards, hoping that Leonard will choose to leave the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors for Los Angeles.

And not just L.A., but the Lakers. Not to the Clippers, the other local team that is in the very same boat. The Clippers hoped to pair another star free agent with Leonard but didn’t get a commitment from Durant, Butler or Al Horford. The Lakers already have their two stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis (coming via a pending trade with the New Orleans Pelicans).

“Kawhi Leonard will not take any meeting with teams today, as he’ll ramp up the process over the next couple of days,” Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports tweeted.

A couple of days? Tuesday? Will the Lakers have any viable free agents to choose from by then?

George Hill is returning to the Milwaukee Bucks. Trevor Ariza is already headed to the Sacramento Kings, and so is Dewayne Dedmon. DeAndre Jordan will join Durant and Irving in Brooklyn with the Nets. Taj Gibson will play for the New York Knicks, JJ Redick the New Orleans Pelicans, and Terrence Ross is staying with the Orlando Magic.

The Lakers’ potential wish list of players is quickly shrinking.

Now if they land Leonard, who cares? They’d immediately be the instant favorite for the NBA title. The Lakers have already made a leap on paper, even with just three players on the roster (Kyle Kuzma, James and Davis). With Leonard, Los Angeles could easily flesh out the rest of their roster with their $4.8 million room exception and minimum players to win 60 games.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

No Leonard, the Lakers better hope that Danny Green is still around in a few days or the likes of Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Boban Marjanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, Elfrid Payton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Richaun Holmes, T.J. McConnell, Markieff Morris, etc.

Some of those names would be tremendous additions alongside Leonard, but three or four individual signings won’t near what the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player would mean on his own to the Lakers.

Per Tania Ganguli and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, “Magic Johnson spoke with Leonard and his uncle, Dennis Robertson, on Sunday. … They had a positive conversation about the direction of the Lakers.”

The story went on to note that Johnson’s “perspective matters to Leonard.”

That’s an interesting wrinkle, given Johnson abruptly resigned from his position in the team’s front office on the final day of the regular season. He has since gone on national television blasting the franchise and general manager Rob Pelinka.

Perhaps Leonard is concerned about joining a dysfunctional front office and needs to understand why Johnson left. Naturally, Johnson is going to do whatever he can to get Leonard to come to the Lakers. Despite how his tenure ended, Johnson is still close with owner Jeanie Buss and has vowed multiple times to support the team in any way he can.

Johnson would also get some credit, retroactively, for his rebuild of the Lakers leading to the All-Star triumvirate of Leonard, Davis and James. He’s a natural salesman, but to date, it’s unclear if Leonard is buying.

The Clippers can offer Doc Rivers, Jerry West and Steve Ballmer along with Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, provided Leonard wants to return to Los Angeles area where he grew up. Or perhaps he’ll stay with the Raptors and president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri.

“The Raptors need to show a further willingness to spend,” one executive said.

Toronto was one of five taxpayers this past season, hit with a $25.2 million penalty. Even without Leonard, the team has roughly $111 million in players invested in nine players. Pencil in $15 million for Green and $32.7 million for Leonard, and the team would be back in the tax at $158.4 million for just 11.

Keep an eye on Green over the next “couple of days” while Leonard decides his fate. If the Raptors lose Green, Leonard’s teammate dating back to their days with the champion San Antonio Spurs, perhaps Leonard will decide it’s time to head home to Los Angeles. Maybe even to the Lakers.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.comn Twitter @EricPincus.

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The 3rd Chapter Begins: What Move to Nets Means for Kevin Durant’s Legacy

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant paces around the bench during the first half in Game 3 of the team's first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Seconds after free agency began Sunday evening, Kevin Durant made official what had been reported an hour earlier after gaining momentum for the past week: He and Kyrie Irving will, in fact, team up in New York, as had been rumored for the better part of a year.

The curveball is the team. As first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the two superstars will be joining the Brooklyn Nets, not the New York Knicks.

It was the counterintuitive choice based on all the noise that’s been circulating around the NBA for the last year. But it was ultimately the one that made the most sense for the next chapter Durant wants to write.

Durant had been linked to the Knicks for most of this past season. For months, Golden State Warriors staffers had operated under the assumption that he was gone this summer. The notion that he would be suiting up at Madison Square Garden next year appeared to be as much of a foregone conclusion in behind-the-scenes league circles as LeBron James’ imminent signing with the Los Angeles Lakers was thought to be during the 2017-18 campaign.

In a perfect world, Durant would make historic MSG—the Mecca—home by lifting a franchise from the dead. The Knicks would resurface as the focus of the basketball world, and KD would position himself to earn a championship unlike any he captured in Golden State.

But the devastating ruptured Achilles tendon Durant suffered in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals changed everything. Any team signing him this summer was now making a move for the 2020-21 season rather than building an instant contender.

TORONTO,ONTARIO - JUNE 10:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors tries to get the crowd to show their respect for an injured Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on June 10, 2019 in Toro

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Despite suffering the worst injury a basketball player can endure, Durant’s pedigree is enough to make a max contract worth the gamble. The Warriors, by all accounts, were prepared to offer him a five-year, $221 million deal, and the Nets got it done for the most money they could put on the table: four years and $162 million.

Durant would be one of the greatest players in the history of the sport if he retired today. Even at age 30 and coming off an Achilles injury, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt that his days as a high-level performer won’t be over.

But according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Knicks owner James Dolan wasn’t willing to go there, which only underscores the difference between the two New York organizations. That he, or someone close to him, felt the need to put that information out there is a staggering misread of the room. If the Knicks thought that explanation would make them appear prudent, or that it would provide cover for Durant choosing an objectively better situation across town, it actually had the opposite effect.

If the Knicks passed up the chance to sign arguably the best player of his generation, even with legitimate injury concerns, it only validated every gripe the team’s fans have had about Dolan for the past two decades.  

This isn’t the first time the Knicks and Nets have competed for A-list free agents. Both were in the running for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010, and both ultimately struck out. In subsequent years, both franchises mortgaged their futures in win-now moves—the Knicks by trading a cadre of young players and picks for Carmelo Anthony, and the Nets by trading their next half-decade of first-round picks for past-their-prime Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

BROOKLYN, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: (L-R) Joe Johnson #7, Paul Pierce #34, Kevin Garnett #2, Head Coach Jason Kidd, Brook Lopez #11, and Deron Williams #8 of the Brooklyn Nets pose for a portrait during Media Day at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. NOTE TO U

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Neither franchise has managed to contend after those moves, one 54-win Knicks season in 2012-13 notwithstanding. Both have felt the long-term effects of those shortsighted endeavors for years.

This time, the Nets won out with the one thing that has eluded the Knicks in that time: competence. 

Brooklyn doesn’t have the iconic arena, the world-famous brand or the mystique. What it does have is a strong roster of role players who have gotten better each year while on cheap contracts, a creative front office and a well-regarded coaching staff led by Kenny Atkinson.

The Nets’ situation offered the best of both worlds for Durant. They’re set up to compete without him—maybe not for a title, but certainly to build on a breakthrough 2018-19 campaign in which they made the playoffs for the first time in four years. Irving is an upgrade over departing point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was an All-Star in his own right. His addition, along with the improvement of youngsters Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen, should put them squarely in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack.

That was supposed to be their progression anyway. The jump from fringe playoff team to legitimate title contender is not one that typically happens overnight, and letting Durant spend the full year rehabbing his injury will give them cover to progress organically. 

In 2018-19, the Nets were eliminated in five games by the Philadelphia 76ers after years in the lottery. The logical next step will be to win a playoff series, which they’re capable of doing with the players they’ll have on the floor next season.

For Durant, that’s crucial, as his third chapter will also be his first post-Achilles chapter. If he is even 80 percent of his former self when he returns in the 2020-21 season, it will dovetail nicely with what would have been the Nets’ ideal timeline for contending anyway.

It’s not often a team gets to have it both ways, but Brooklyn is set up nicely with Durant and Irving in the fold.

Had Durant joined the Knicks without a second star in tow, he would have been playing with a group of largely unproven youngsters including Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and this year’s No. 3 overall pick, RJ Barrett. It would have been a far less appealing on-court situation, especially when combined with the dysfunction that has plagued the Knicks’ organization for years. 

If Durant is going to leave a dynasty, it has to be worth his while on the court. The mystique of Madison Square Garden alone wasn’t going to cut it.

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 5: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors talks with Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics after the game on March 5, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Durant joined the historically great Warriors in 2016 while seeking rings, and he got two of them in three years. With that he thought would come validation, but he and his Golden State teammates quickly became widely reviled for “ruining” the NBA. Fans would never love him the way they did Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who were draft picks made by the franchise and were on board for the dynasty’s first title in 2015.

This season, considering the tensions between Durant and Green and the near-constant speculation about his future, felt like the logical conclusion of that run even before Durant’s significant injury. The controversial handling of Durant’s quad injury in the second round of the playoffs, which led many to question whether the Warriors cleared his Finals return prematurely, didn’t help matters, either.

Durant could have re-upped with the Warriors, rehabbed on their dime for a year and attempted to salvage what looked to be a dynasty on its last legs. With Klay Thompson also out for the foreseeable future rehabbing a torn ACL, Golden State isn’t expected to contend next season. But every great run has to come to an end, and at times, this Warriors team felt like the 2003-04 Lakers, 1997-98 Bulls or 2013-14 Heat. By moving on now, Durant can start fresh as he attempts to overcome the biggest hurdle of his career.

In Brooklyn, he now has the opportunity to write his own final chapter.

The Nets team he’s joining is a good one, but it’s not a 73-win juggernaut. No one will accuse him of frontrunning if he wins a title with them. They don’t have the Knicks’ name-brand recognition, but if he brings a title to Brooklyn, Durant can build that from the ground up for a Nets team that has struggled to gain a foothold in New York.

And this time, it will be his team. There’s no confusion about that, as there was when he joined the Warriors. If he was frustrated by the lack of personal credit he got in Golden State, he’ll get plenty by winning in Brooklyn. Any hardware he picks up in his third stop will mean more because he did it on his terms.

Durant and Irving joining the Nets was not the outcome anyone expected. But for the NBA, and for the third act of Durant’s story, the chance to build his own empire in Brooklyn could be the most compelling one.

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.

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Explosion hits Kabul’s diplomatic district: Media reports

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast hit a densely populated area where the ministry of defence is located [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]
Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast hit a densely populated area where the ministry of defence is located [Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

A powerful explosion has rocked the Afghan capital Kabul, rattling windows and sending smoke billowing from Kabul’s downtown area near the US Embassy, according to media reports.

The explosion occurred early on Monday as the streets in the capital were packed with morning commuters.

Witnesses told Reuters the sound shook their building in the diplomatic area of Kabul.

Officials and police were at the scene of the blast and few details were available, including casualties.

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast hit a densely populated area where the ministry of defence is located.

Kabul’s chief police spokesman, Firdous Faramaz, could only confirm the explosion, but was unclear on the target or the type of explosive device, according to Associated Press.

The attack comes as the Taliban and the United States hold talks in Qatar, where the armed group maintains a political office.

More soon.

News agencies

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Report: D’Angelo Russell Signs $117M Contract with Warriors After Sign-and-Trade

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 7:  D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Brooklyn Nets handles the ball against the Boston Celtics on January 7, 2019 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The Golden State Warriors are close to acquiring point guard D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium.

Golden State would also receive Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier, per Charania.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Russell will sign for $117 million over four years. Wojnarowski also reported the Warriors traded Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies in part to accommodate Russell’s contract.

The move comes on the same day Kevin Durant agreed to a four-year, $164 million deal with the Nets, per Wojnarowski. Kyrie Irving is on his way to Brooklyn along with Durant, which meant Russell would be on the move at some point during free agency.

Russell took his game to a new level this season, averaging 21.1 points and 7.0 assists while earning his first All-Star selection. He stayed healthy (81 appearances) and became a leader while helping the Nets finish with a winning record for the first time in five years.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Russell first joined the Nets in the summer of 2017 in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers that was mostly to dump the contract of Timofey Mozgov.

He averaged 15.5 points and 5.2 assists in his first season and could have been even better without a knee injury that cost him two months. While he had shown plenty of ability during his first two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers by averaging 14.3 points, he has become more of a complete player over the past two years.

From the Nets perspective, the restricted free agent was set to command a large new contract to keep him on the roster. The team had even considered trading him earlier in the year, reportedly including him in trade talks for Jimmy Butler, per Michael Scotto of the Athletic.

With the team already making upgrades through free agency, the Nets were able to add more assets and clear cap room going into the future.

The Warriors, meanwhile, add an All-Star to partner with Stephen Curry as Klay Thompson is set to miss most or all of the 2019-20 season recovering from a torn ACL.

From that perspective, Thompson’s absence works in Golden State’s favor since the team has a year to decide whether Russell can fit into its long-term outlook. Should Russell struggle to adapt to the Warriors’ offensive system, general manager Bob Myers could potentially gauge his trade value this time next summer. 

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Derrick Favors Reportedly Traded to Pelicans; Jazz Receive Draft Picks

Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Denver. The Jazz won 111-104. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Derrick Favors is headed to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of a trade with the Utah Jazz, per Tony Jones of The Athletic.

Jones added the Jazz will receive draft picks in exchange for the deal.

Favors has $16.9 million remaining on his deal for 2019-20, but the money was not guaranteed until July 6, per Spotrac.

The Jazz could have kept him, but they ran out of cap space after agreeing to a four-year, $73 million deal with Bojan Bogdanovic, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Bobby Marks of ESPN reported the team would have to trade or waive Favors in order to work out the deal.

By completing a trade, Utah was at least able to bring back assets in exchange for the talented player. 

Favors has spent the past eight seasons with the Jazz. The New Jersey Nets selected him with the third overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, but he appeared in just 56 games for the organization before getting dealt to Utah in the blockbuster Deron Williams trade.

The 27-year-old Atlanta native averaged 11.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 58.6 percent from the field across 76 appearances last season. Among power forwards, he ranked fifth in player efficiency rating and eighth in ESPN’s real plus-minus.

He’s come a long way since struggling to carve out a niche for himself off the Jazz bench early in his career.

He told Tony Jones of The Athletic in mid-June there was a certain shock factor that took a while to wear off after being moved so quickly by the Nets.

“I remember being overwhelmed,” Favors said. “I didn’t know what to expect because I had never been traded. I had new teammates. I had a new coaching staff. I was only 19. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for that at the time.”

The Georgia Tech product’s minutes have decreased over the past three seasons because he’s never developed an outside shot amid the rise of stretch 4s. But his numbers show he’s remained a highly effective player in a more limited role for Utah.

Since the Jazz have one of the NBA’s top centers in Rudy Gobert, they decided to left Favors go to create more financial flexibility. The team will also reportedly add Ed Davis, per Wojnarowski.

Meanwhile, New Orleans will now have an experienced frontcourt player to pair with rookies Zion Williamson and Jaxson Hayes.

With Jrue Holiday leading the way and several promising players like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball also on the roster, the Pelicans have a chance to be a playoff contender in 2019-20 even after losing Anthony Davis.

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Report: Ex-Celtics Star Al Horford Agrees to 4-Year, $109M Contract with 76ers

Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) shoots during warms-ups before Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Sunday, April 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Al Horford is reportedly joining the third team of his career.

The Philadelphia 76ers agreed to a four-year, $109 million deal with the big man Sunday, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“Horford’s agent tried to do a deal in Boston, but the money was significantly less than the Philly deal,” Wojnarowski said on ESPN’s The Jump.

Wojnarowski reported June 18 that Horford declined the $30.1 million player option on his contract for the 2019-20 campaign to become an unrestricted free agent instead of returning to the Boston Celtics.

The move turned heads, especially considering Horford rejected such a financial windfall while he is likely on the back end of his career, but Wojnarowski noted there was still “motivation” on both sides to sign a long-term contract that could give the front office financial flexibility.

However, Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reported Horford stopped discussing a three-year deal with the Celtics and instead was “expected” to join another team on a four-year contract.

The Florida product entered the league in 2007 when the Atlanta Hawks selected him with the No. 3 overall pick, and he has surpassed expectations as a five-time All-Star, 2010-11 All-NBA third-team selection and 2017-18 All-Defensive second-team selection.

He has been a double-double machine throughout his 12 seasons and has averaged 14.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest in his career. He can also extend his game to the perimeter as a three-point shooter (36.0 percent last season and 42.9 percent in 2017-18) and facilitate from the high elbow or blocks when defenders collapse on him.

Horford is a proven commodity, but there is some risk for the 76ers to sign a 33-year-old for multiple seasons.

In order to mitigate that, he will need to provide veteran leadership and poise while continuing to produce like he did in 2018-19.

Even with plenty of miles on his legs, Horford averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.3 blocks per night while shooting 53.5 percent from the field and a career-best 82.1 percent from the free-throw line last season, serving as a stabilizing force for a volatile Celtics squad that failed to live up to championship hopes.

Horford has 120 playoff games on his resume but has never played in the NBA Finals.

He won’t single-handedly change that with the Sixers, but his versatility on both ends of the floor and ability to slide in alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid figures to help Philly push toward title contention in 2019-20.

The combination of Horford and Embiid gives the 76ers a chance to own perhaps the NBA’s most productive frontcourt, but that’s dependent on their fitting well together.

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Report: Jimmy Butler to Heat in Sign-and-Trade; Agrees to 4-Year, $142M Contract

Philadelphia 76ers' Jimmy Butler in action during the first half of Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, Thursday, May 9, 2019, in Philadelphia. 76ers won 112-101. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Jimmy Buckets is off the market.

The Miami Heat will acquire star wing Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. Butler will get the full four-year max worth $142 million, per Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic.

Philadelphia will receive Josh Richardson in exchange for the deal, per Charania.

Butler, 29, had a bizarre 2018-19 season, essentially forcing his way out of Minnesota before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. He was one of two major midseason acquisitions for Philly, alongside Tobias Harris, and he showed his worth to the team almost immediately, providing a solid two-way game and the ability to close out contests late in the fourth quarter with some clutch performances and game-winning shots.

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In all, Butler averaged 18.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 55 regular-season games with the Sixers, shooting 46.1 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from three.

But Butler was even better for the team in the playoffs, as head coach Brett Brown all but made him the half-court point guard and ran far more pick-and-rolls for him. While Butler’s counting stats (19.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists) didn’t see a major bump, his impact was clearly felt.

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His ability to create his own offense on the perimeter was huge for a Sixers team that lacked that type of player before his arrival. While Joel Embiid has emerged as the NBA‘s best center and Ben Simmons is a two-way force, neither is as adept at creating his own offense. In the postseason, when defenses tighten and possessions often boil down to players winning one-on-one battles to create buckets outside the context of team offense, Butler was vital. 

That makes his loss devastating for the Sixers. But his two-way play and clutch gene are huge additions for Miami, who are now one step closer to being title contenders next season.

In Miami, Butler will give the Heat their first superstar since the heyday of Dwyane Wade and the team’s title runs with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. There will be some questions about how Pat Riley and the front office will build around Butler, given that they gave up an excellent young player in Josh Richardson, but getting Butler was a move in the right direction.

Recruiting another star in the future will be the next step for a Heat team that once again has a path toward contention in the coming years.

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