Biggest question left in training camp: James Harden’s extension

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The question is not if James Harden wants to stay in Oklahoma City, he has said many times he wants to be part of this team as it tries to win a ring. The question is not if Oklahoma City wants him back, they know without him they may not be title contenders. The question isn’t if he loves the fans or the fans love him, just look at all the fake beards in the stands at a Thunder game.

No, the question as always is money.

By Oct. 31 the Thunder have to make a decision — offer Harden a max extension (four years, $58 million) and eat the tax that will come in a few years with that; or don’t offer an extension and let him become a restricted free agent next summer where another team (or teams) will make that same max offer to him. Then Thunder can match those offers, but the price is set.

Oklahoma City seems to hope Harden will give them a discount, he doesn’t seem inclined to do that. But the Thunder made their bed — they games Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook max extensions in past years, then reached a four year, $50 million extension with Serge Ibaka this past summer. When they did that, they knew full well what the price — and tax — for Harden would be. Marc Stein at ESPN explains the Thunder’s financial decision this way:

Re-signing Harden to a max extension, then, would come at a debilitating cost. The team already has $70.8 million on the books for 2013-14. Add in a big Harden raise to, say, $13 million, then factor in the projected tax threshold of $70 million, and the league would ding the Thunder with penalties of $28 million during that season. Hmm. Harden salary: $13 million. Resulting tax: $28 million. It’d be like getting one Harden for the price of two.

Stein’s piece gives a false binary choice for Harden of being the next Joe Johnson — the star who demanded the max, left Phoenix for Atlanta and saw his reputation slip — or Manu Ginobili, who took less to win rings and stay in San Antonio. Those are certainly not the only two outcomes.

To me this comes back to the Thunder and their ownership — they chose to move out of Seattle to Oklahoma City, a smaller television market with less potential for local media revenue. They knew the finances of their move. They knew that Harden was a max player and that other teams would line up for him when OKC gave Westbrook and Ibaka their extensions. Thunder management and ownership knew the tax implications that would be coming their way.

The Thunder made their choices, they are not blameless in this. Harden has a right with his career to make his choices, to make as much as he can. The Thunder have their right to decide what they will and will not pay. But neither side gets to say the other side is fully at fault.

The Thunder owners have said they would pay the tax in the past. We’ll see if they really meant it. And while Harden is under no obligation to take less (the Thunder’s other stars didn’t) it also might be the wise move for his career.

By the Oct. 31 extension deadline we will have answers. And if the answer is no extension, there will be a lot more questions. Starting with: Should the Thunder trade Harden and get something for him while they can?

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.

Watch Kyrie Irving drop 31 on Knicks in Celtics’ win

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn’t win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

 

Damian Lillard scores 40, hits game-winner to beat Suns (VIDEO)

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PHOENIX (AP) — Passing the ball inbounds at a critical time proved too big a challenge for the sputtering Phoenix Suns. So, Damian Lillard got one final chance.

Of course, he came through.

Lillard scored 40 points, the last two on a driving layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, and the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 15 down in the final 7 1/2 minutes to beat Phoenix 106-104 on Saturday night, the Suns’ ninth straight loss.

Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

“Obviously, Damian was huge, showed his leadership, showed his talent,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We overcame a horrendous shooting night for most of the night and found a way.”

Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, got the final chance because Phoenix’s Troy Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds on a five-second call that turned possession over to Portland with 20.6 seconds to play.

“We knew they didn’t have any time outs left,” Stotts said, “so we gave it a shot and made some good reads and didn’t give them any outlets.”‘

Devin Booker scored 30 points for the Suns, losers of 14 of their last 15.

His two free throws gave Phoenix its biggest lead, 93-78, with 7:26 to play. Lillard triggered the subsequent 18-4 outburst that caught the Suns at 97-97 on his 3-point play. Booker’s fifth and final 3-pointer gave the Suns a 100-97 lead with 2:19 to go. Lillard’s 3 tied it at 100 with 1:10 left.

Booker’s powerful driving basket put Phoenix up 104-102 with 33.6 seconds to go. But, after a timeout, Lillard’s step-back 15-footer tied it at 104-104 with 28 seconds left. The Suns called time out to set up the play but, on the sidelines, Daniels couldn’t get the ball inbounds for the five-second call.

“We had no timeouts. I didn’t see anybody open. If I did, I would have thrown it obviously,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in that position a lot of times, but like I said, it’s tough to be in that position when you have no timeouts. You learn from and you get it better.”

On the play, Portland’s CJ McCollum said “I just tried to take away Booker.”

“I saw how they were set up and I just guarded him normal and when I turned and saw him run toward half-court I just shaded toward him,” McCollum said.

Booker never broke open, Daniels decided not to chance it, and the last opportunity was gifted to Portland.

“There was 20 seconds left and I just wanted to make sure I got the last shot,” Lillard said. “I really just wanted to get the clock down, keep it towards half-court where it is further out and I can get downhill. I took a peek, the clock was at six and I got downhill.”

The Blazers, coming off a win at Utah the previous night, have won three straight and five of six.

The game was tied 10 times before Portland finished the first half with a 7-2 spurt take a 55-50 lead at the break.

But the Suns turned it on in the third quarter, outscoring the cold-shooting Blazers 31-16. Portland scored the first five of the second half to take its biggest lead, 60-50. But Phoenix overwhelmed the Trail Blazers 29-5 to go up 79-65 on Booker’s 3.

 

Russell Westbrook, Paul George call out Zaza Pachulia for “dirty” fall on Westbrook

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Zaza Pachulia has a reputation. The league even created a rule — the “Zaza rule”  — after he stepped under Kawhi Leonard last playoffs and twisted the forward’s ankle, ending Leonard’s playoffs and the Spurs chances.

Then Saturday night, as the Warriors pulled away in the second half and routed the Thunder, this play happened, where Pachulia fell on Westbrook’s leg.

While there was some contact, was that really enough to knock Pachulia over? It doesn’t look like it, it looks intentional, but remember Pachulia falls into a lot of guys — including Kevin Durant last season. This, however, was ugly.

After the game Westbrook and Paul George called Pachulia out.

Even the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving chipped in on this.

It will be interesting to see if the league does follow up. There is some history here.