Russell Westbrook says Thunder don’t need to fill James Harden’s slot

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At the time the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets, the thinking in OKC was that if they were never going to come to terms on a contract extension, then the team might as well get something in return for its most dynamic scorer off the bench.

History, however, will not be kind to that deal from the Thunder’s side.

Kevin Martin was the player who was supposed to immediately fill the void left by Harden’s exit, but he was hit and miss at best over the course of the season, and was never capable of taking over a game for stretches the way Harden could at times.

Martin is gone now, signed by the Timberwolves in free agency. All that’s left in terms of assets (besides a trade exception) is Jeremy Lamb, who has potential but will need to make a considerable leap this season to help the team in a meaningful capacity.

Whether or not the Thunder can contend for a title hinges on whether you believe that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are strong enough to carry the rest of the team to the Finals. Most observers believe that Harden’s production needs to be replaced for that to happen, but Westbrook himself doesn’t see it that way.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

Which is why so many of us pests on the outside are openly wondering if the Thunder, with suddenly little to show in return for Harden unless they use the trade exception they created via Martin’s sign-and-trade to Minnesota, have enough to regain the 60-win form we witnessed before Westbrook went down.

It’s no lock even if you presume, as we do here, that Westbrook will make a fairly full recovery from the knee tear he suffered when Houston’s Patrick Beverley lunged at him in Game 2 of OKC’s first-round series with Harden’s Rockets.

Said Westbrook: “The main problem is, I personally think, since James has left I think everybody thinks we need somebody to fill that slot. The slot doesn’t have to be filled. We have a great team. If everybody does their job, we should be all right.”

Thunder GM Sam Presti is obviously in agreement with Westbrook, considering he’s expecting the team to improve upon last season’s 60-win campaign.

But simply put, we wonder if Oklahoma City will have enough overall firepower to make that a reality. Someone on that roster is going to need to provide a scoring punch in a reserve role, or multiple players will need to consistently contribute in order to make things tough on opposing defenses — especially during the postseason.

It’s tough to buy what Westbrook is selling. But who knows, if he’s healthy and motivated and Durant has an MVP-caliber season in store, that could be enough to ultimately prove the doubters wrong.

LeBron James blows wide-open dunk (video)

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J.R. Smith (slightly out of context): “We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break.”

Report: Raptors’ Delon Wright out a month

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Raptors guard Delon Wright dislocated his shoulder, but at least he won’t need surgery.

Raptors media relations:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Raptors (11-5), off to a surprisingly strong start, are second in the Eastern Conference. They’ve bought themselves margin for error. All in all, a month-long absence for Wright isn’t so bad.

Wright had been a key part of an excellent all-bench unit that included Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl. Two-way player Lorenzo Brown has assumed Wright’s role, and Norman Powell – returning from his own injury – will provide a boost. Toronto can also stagger Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan more.

The chemistry of the bench mob was something to behold, but the Raptors should withstand this.

Report: Clippers PG Patrick Beverley out rest of season

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Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley underwent knee surgery – never a great sign.

The prognosis is about as bad as could be expected.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This injury isn’t just a setback for this season. It could derail the Clippers’ long-term plan.

They’ve already lost nine straight, and Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic are injured. If they fall further out of playoff position, they could become sellers before the trade deadline, especially with DeAndre Jordan ($24,119,025 player option for next season) and Lou Williams ($7 million salary on expiring contract).

Health was always the major question with this team, and it won’t soften as Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari age through lucrative contracts.

The final year of Beverley’s contract is guaranteed for just $5,027,028 next season, and the 29-year-old will spend most of the summer recovering from this injury. That salary is probably low enough that the Clippers will keep him without hesitation.

Until then, down a couple point guards, the Clippers have no choice but to continue leaning more on Austin Rivers. That also means greater roles for second-round rookies Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell. That’s just too many players facing outsized responsibility.

The Pelicans, Grizzlies, Jazz and any other team competing for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference ought to feel better about their chances. They’re still competing with each other, and it’s doubtful all three make it. But Beverley’s injury helps clear the way.

The Clippers, who didn’t want to take a major step back after Chris Paul‘s departure, must confront an even more uneasy reality.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out for Bucks-Suns Eric Bledsoe revenge game

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Giannis Antetokounmpoone of the NBA’s best players – won’t help new Bucks teammate Eric Bledsoe in a revenge game against the Suns tonight.

Not only is Milwaukee missing Mirza Teletovic and John Henson (and Matthew Dellavedova and Jabari Parker), Antetokounmpo is out.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Antetokounmpo will miss Wednesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns due to right knee soreness.

Antetokounmpo says his knee soreness is the same injury he dealt with in the off-season, which caused him to withdraw from the Greek national team.

“It feels good,” Antetokounmpo said after sitting out shootaround. “I’m just trying to be careful with it and not make any damage. That’s it, because it’s a long season and I’m trying to be careful.”

The Bucks have been outscored by 18.6 points per 100 possessions without Antetokounmpo this season (and are +2.3 without him). Phoenix isn’t good, but neither is Milwaukee without Antetokounmpo.

I don’t think Bledsoe will mind a chance to get more aggressive tonight, though.