Russell Westbrook, Matt Barnes

Five things to watch: Thunder-Lakers

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The playoff race is heating up and with the Lakers battling for the division and the third seed and the Thunder haggling with the Spurs over the top seed in the West, Sunday’s game is the rare late season meeting with meaning. The Lakers need to get a win to lock in no-worse than fifth and drop their magic number over the Clippers to just one. The Thunder have to hang on as long as possible and hope the Spurs, facing an easier schedule, pull their starters and actually lose.

Plus, you know, these two have some history. So here are five things to keep an eye on when the Thunder face the Lakers.

1. Have  You Ever Seen The Rain?: The Thunder can score in a torrent, with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, all capable of putting up 40. The Lakers’ defense has backslid considerably, and have the fourth worst defensive efficiency over the past four games. Ramon Sessions, Metta World Peace, and Kobe Bryant are going to have to do serious work on the perimeter to contain the Thunder trio. Having help defense from Andrew Bynum (when he cares) isn’t enough. It’s going to take perimeter containment because OKC’s top three can all hit the mid-range jumper consistently off the screen. Sessions has to get through screens faster and more forcefully, Bryant has to attack Harden’s dribble to get the ball out of his hands, and MWP has to just hang on and hope KD doesn’t have a good night. He can do damage against Durant regardless, but if he’s hot, he’s hot, and that’s all there is to it.

2. Ain’t That A Kick In The Teeth?: The Thunder can bully you. They’re not a great defensive squad, but a good one, and they tend to sheepdog opponents into bad positions on the floor where they can trap. They bring help immediately and Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison are all more than willing to give you a stiff forearm to the back down low. Meanwhile, the Lakers can absolutely brutalize their opponents with MWP, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, and Andrew Bynum. The battle between Perkins and Bynum for low-post supremacy remains a key matchup and whoever can establish their physical superiority is going to have a huge edge. Bynum should win based off of just physics, but if he’s not engaged, Perkins can stonewall him.

3. A Mid-Range Oven: In the first two games, Serge Ibaka was 6-11 from mid-range for 55% shooting from space when Pau Gasol was on the floor. He’s usually a 38% shooter from there. Gasol usually shoots 47 percent in the paint, non-restricted area. Against the Thunder, he shot just 33 percent, despite taking a higher than average percentage of his shots from there. Basically, whoever can take over from mid-range is going ot give their team a sizeable advantage. Gasol needs to hit a few over Ibaka using his height advantage to spook the youngster. Once that happens, Ibaka will go for the pump-fake and Gasol can create higher looks for himself and others. This is a crucial matchup for the Lakers, one they have to win.

4. Awkwardness and You: Derek Fisher is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Players Association, with the Executive Committee having voted 8-0 for a no-confidence vote against the President Fisher and asking him to resign. Fisher refuses. In the middle of all this, Fisher has to go out and be a leader and calming influence on the Thunder, providing valuable backup point guard minutes. Fisher’s a professional, and it’s unlikely that this off-court matter will affect his on-court play. But it’s something to watch, especially in relation to how his teammates approach him.

5. Fresh Legs: The Lakers have to start thinking about resting key players. They need to get healthy and in good condition for the playoffs. They’re a win and a Clippers loss away from clinching the 3rd seed and the Clippers would need a lot of help to overtake them. If the OKC game gets away in either direction for the Lakers, Mike Brown needs to rest his guys. If they catch the Thunder napping, let the bench mob close out the game. If they get blown out of the building, sit Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum and let the Thunder have their way. Burning them out with a week to go makes little sense. Big picture is always more important.

Mario Chalmers says he’s cleared to play

Memphis Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers moves the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015, in Washington. Chalmers was ejected in the first half. The Wizards won 100-91. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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Mario Chalmers was thriving with the Grizzlies after a midseason trade from the Heat when a torn Achilles ended his season.

Not the way Chalmers wanted to enter free agency.

Still unsigned, he says he’s progressing.

Chalmers:

Can he go 100%, though? If not, when?

A few teams could use another point guard. If Chalmers shows his health, he belongs in someone’s rotation. But that might require taking a low-paying deal and working his way up from the third point guard spot – or even just onto the regular-season roster.

Report: John Wall ‘rankled’ by James Harden’s high-paying Rockets contract

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards is defended by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in the second half at Verizon Center on March 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. 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. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Bradley Beal isn’t the only player bothering John Wall.

James Harden – who’s earning a lot of money from the Rockets and adidas – is drawing the ire of the Wizards point guard.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

One league source familiar with Wall’s state of mind simply put it this way: “Wall’s got jealousy issues. He’s always upset with someone who makes more money than him.”

A front office executive tells The Ringer that Wall was “rankled” after Harden signed a four-year, $118 million extension with the Rockets.

O’Connor also pointed out this line from Nick DePaula of Yahoo Sports on Wall rejected adidas’ offer:

“He wanted Harden money,” a source told The Vertical.

I wonder how Wall feels about Beal’s max contract, which pays much more than Wall’s deal. Wall didn’t like Reggie Jackson, another lesser player, earning the same amount as him.

The union rejecting cap smoothing in light of the new national TV contracts has certainly adversely affected Wall, who locked in long-term just before the salary cap explosion became known. As other players sign huge contracts, he’s stuck on his old-money deal.

Washington could’ve renegotiated and extended Wall’s contract, but it would have been more complicated than Harden’s arrangement. Wall has three years remaining to what was previously two for Harden. How much extra money would the Wizards have paid Wall over the next three years just to get him committed for one more year? Instead, they signed Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith.

I’m also unsure Wall would’ve accepted an extension. He doesn’t seem overly happy in Washington, and a raise via renegotiation was coming only if Wall provided something in return – an additional year of team control added to his contract.

And don’t lose track of this: Harden is better than Wall.

I don’t mind Wall monitoring other players’ contracts. That jealousy or whatever you want to call it has driven Wall to become a star NBA player. Whatever motivation works.

But demanding Harden’s deal is unrealistic. The Wizards also ought to be mindful of how Beal’s new contract affects chemistry, but that’s their problem.

Wall’s issue – as a player, not endorser – is primarily theoretical. He’s tied to his current contract, and lesser players will earn more than him due simply to timing. He must find a way to make peace with that.

51Q: Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Gordon Hayward #20 of the Utah Jazz celebrates his three point during a timeout with Derrick Favors #15 and the bench at Staples Center on November 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Today is day two of PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Is there any reason the Jazz won’t be really good?

The Utah Jazz barely missed the playoffs last season, but virtually no team in the middle tier of the league is as universally adored for their direction. They’re well-coached by Quin Snyder, have a roster that makes sense together and made sensible moves this summer to get better. Barring injuries, they should be a lock to make the postseason for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

In the non-Warriors category, it’s hard to argue that very many teams had better offseasons than the Jazz when it comes to filling holes on their roster without giving up any core pieces. Utah’s weakest position last season was point guard — with Dante Exum out for the year rehabbing a torn ACL, things got so bad that a midseason trade for career backup Shelvin Mack was considered a major upgrade. This summer, they flipped a lottery pick they didn’t really want to Atlanta in a three-team deal that got them George Hill, as solid a starting-caliber point guard as would realistically be available for them. Hill’s playmaking and outside shooting immediately improve Utah’s offense and gives Snyder a rock-solid veteran to take pressure off Exum coming back from missing a full year of action. Even if the Jazz view Exum as their long-term answer at point guard, it’s going to take him a full year to get back up to speed, and having Hill means he has to do less right away.

The Jazz’ other major upgrade came with the signing of seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson to a two-year, $22 million deal. Johnson isn’t a first or second option on offense anymore at this point in his career, but as a veteran scorer off the bench, he can still be effective and should be a great fit in the offense. Taking on Boris Diaw‘s contract could prove savvy, too, if he’s as engaged as he was in San Antonio.

Beyond the roster upgrades, the driving force of all the Jazz optimism this summer is how well all of their young pieces fit together, and the potential for improvement from all of them. Nobody knows what Exum will be, but even if Utah gets nothing out of him, they have an enviable core just entering its prime. Rudy Gobert is one of the most lethal rim protectors in the league at 24 years old. Derrick Favors has developed into an excellent all-around power forward. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood provide a potent scoring combo on the perimeter, and if Alec Burks is healthy, he can help there too.

The Jazz are also the beneficiaries of the shifting balance of power in the Western Conference. The Thunder lost Kevin Durant and while they’re probably still a playoff team, they’re far from a lock. The Blazers spent a lot of money but didn’t necessarily get better, and may have overachieved last season. The Timberwolves, despite having arguably the brightest future in the league, are still probably a couple years away. The Rockets and Grizzlies are still total question marks, and the Pelicans haven’t been able to construct a solid group around Anthony Davis. Meanwhile, the Jazz are sitting there with the least downside of any of these bubble teams, not a lot of rotation question marks and play in a division without a clear-cut favorite.

Nobody thinks the Jazz are going to be title contenders, but looking up and down the west hierarchy, there isn’t a team that the Warriors or the Spurs should want to face less in the playoffs. And this year, they have the depth to get there.

Ryan McDonough: Suns plan to be ‘major players’ in 2017 free agency

Ryan McDonough
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The Suns have swung big in free agency the previous couple years, chasing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014 and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

But 2016 appeared to be the year Phoenix really eyed.

The Suns structured the contracts of multiple players – including Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris – to have salaries that dipped this summer. Time that flexibility correctly, and it can really pay off.

Phoenix big prize? Jared Dudley.

Dudley is a nice player, but he’s hardly the star the Suns seek. So, they’ll try again next year.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

That’s been one of our frustrations this summer. We were kind of on the sideline for some of the marquee free agents. But as you know, Woj, it wasn’t the deepest free agent class.

Potentially, it’s a very strong free agent class next year. And one of the things we’ve done with our contracts is we’ve lined them up to have max cap space next year without really touching the core of our roster.

I think and I hope at this time next year, we’re major players in free agency. Because as you mentioned, the Phoenix Suns are a destination franchise.

The 2017 free agent class won’t be as strong as hoped.

LeBron James locked in for multiple years with the Cavaliers. Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension with the Thunder. Kevin Durant indicated he’ll re-sign with the Warriors. So has Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin is reportedly “adamant” about re-signing with the Clippers.

Teams will almost certainly match any offer for the top restricted free agents – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel – if they don’t extend their contracts first.

That still leaves several quality unrestricted free agents – including Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap – but Paul and Lowry are point guards. Phoenix already has Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, and Devin Booker looks like the shooting guard of the future. So, forget simply sliding Bledsoe or Knight to off guard. It’d take a major shakeup for Paul or Lowry to make sense with the Suns.

Still, McDonough’s approach is logical. If he can keep kicking the can down the road, perpetually selling that his plan is a year from taking it hold, it’ll make it easier for him to retain his prestigious job.

But if he has to make his 2017 free agency plan work rather than deferring to 2018, it could be difficult.

The Suns project to have about $17 million in cap space (under a system that could change significantly with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement). Renouncing restricted free agent Alex Len could clear about $12 million more, and just $500,000 of Leandro Barbosa‘s $4 million salary is guaranteed. Trading Tyson Chandler, Bledsoe and/or Knight could open even more space. Losing Len isn’t ideal, but for the right free agent, the upgrade would be worthwhile.

The bigger issue is winning. Phoenix has struggled to lure top free agents, because the team has missed the playoffs six straight years. That’s unlikely, though not impossible, to change this year. If the probabilities hold, what does McDonough sell then?

He always has the option of using cap space to facilitate uneven trades, a route he previously broached. Depending on the deal, that could encroach on 2017 cap space.

But if his plan holds, the Suns will keep their books relatively clear until next summer.