Are Thunder skirting NBA protocol by sending first-round pick Josh Huestis to D-League?

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Beyond Bruno Caboclo (No. 20 by the Raptors), Josh Huestis was the most surprising first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

Huestis, selected No. 29 by the Thunder, was expected to go in the 50s.

Why did Oklahoma City reach for the Stanford forward? Maybe the Thunder had a plan all along.

Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Two Thunder draft picks remain unsigned, and the arrival of the 66ers in Oklahoma City stands as confirmation that they’re likely destined to spend the year competing in the D-League.

For guard Semaj Christon, the 55th overall selection out of Xavier, it’s a natural landing spot.

But with Josh Huestis, a first-round selection, the Thunder could be on the verge of breaking ground.

As the 29th overall pick, Huestis would become the first player selected in the first round to forgo his rookie season to sign in the D-League. In other words, he’d be the first-ever domestic “draft-and-stash” player.

By taking Huestis with the second-to-last selection in the first round, the Thunder secured another critically cost-effective rookie scale contract. The difference is that standard four-year deal — two guaranteed years and two team options in the final two seasons — would come on the back end of a preliminary year in the D-League and ensures the Thunder would have Huestis developing in its program for at least five seasons.

It’s not clear why Mayberry believes Huestis will decline to sign his rookie-scale contract and sign in the D-League instead, but Mayberry is extremely plugged-in. I doubt this is pure speculation.

If I were speculating, though, I’d guess the Thunder and Huestis made this arrangement before the draft. Maybe Oklahoma City drafted the best player willing to defer his rookie contract.

Such a plan would have advantages for both the Thunder and Huestis.

The Thunder wouldn’t use one of 15 roster spots on Huestis and wouldn’t count his salary against the 2014-15 payroll if he doesn’t sign. Next year, they could sign him to the rookie scale when they’re further from the luxury-tax line. Or if Huestis doesn’t pan out, they’re under no obligation to sign him (though they would lose his rights if they don’t tender him an offer).

For Huestis, this would probably have been the most direct path to a guaranteed contract. If he went in the second round as expected, he could have been sent to the D-League regardless. This way, presumably, there’s a larger promised offer at the end of the road.

However, such an arrangement would have probably violated the NBA by-laws, which state (hat tip: Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders):

Prior to the annual NBA Draft, Members may have preliminary discussions with players eligible for the Draft, but may not discuss the matter of compensation.

Perhaps there are ways around the rule with careful wording in pre-draft negotiations, but that’s dicey. The NBA generally enforces the spirit, not the verbiage, of its rules.

Brass tacks, here are the numbers involved.

If Huestis signs his rookie-scale contract as nearly every first-round pick does, he’d make between $734,400 and $1,101,600 this season with a guaranteed second year paying between $767,520 and $1,151,280.

Various unofficial salaries have been reported for the D-League, and I’m sure some of the confusion can be attributed to rising rates. But the very highest figure I’ve seen is “a little over $30,000 per year” from Matt Moore of Eye on Basketball.

For Huestis to give up so much money was either pre-arranged or is a huge favor on his part for the Thunder. The NBA – or more likely the National Basketball Players Association – might want to look into what happened here. The union certainly doesn’t want a precedent of first-round picks voluntarily sacrificing salary for owners to save money.

Huestis – unless he and Oklahoma City arranged this scheme before the draft, which would cause its own set of issues that might be outside his control – might want to give this deal another look, too.

If he believes the D-League is the best way for him to develop, he could sign his rookie-scale contract, and the Thunder could still assign him there. He’d make his full salary and count against the parent club’s 15-man roster. But that’s the Thunder’s problem – not his.

To keep Huestis’ rights, the Thunder must have offered him a contract already worth at least 80 percent of scale ($734,400 this season and $767,520 next). He can accept that at any time.

Oklahoma City drafted Grant Jerrett in 2013 and didn’t sign him until late in the season after he played in the D-League. This offseason, the Thunder rewarded him with a multi-year contract.

That show of faith should give Huestis some confidence, but there’s a major difference in the situations. Jerrett, a second-round pick, didn’t get a guaranteed contract on condition of being drafted. Huestis, if Oklahoma City wants to retain his rights, does. That gives Huestis much more leverage.

We’re moving toward a 30-team D-League where every NBA team has its own affiliate. Then, a new set of rules will govern roster and cap limits.

For now, though, with the rules in place, something appears to be amiss. Maybe the only issue is Huestis’ logic, but if it’s anything deeper, the NBA and players union might get involved.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.