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.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.

Russell Westbrook throws incredible halfcourt bounce pass vs. Rockets (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook had yet another triple-double on Sunday. The Oklahoma City Thunder star notched 13 assists in the loss to the Houston Rockets, 137-125, and one of them came on a nifty pass to teammate Victor Oladipo.

The play happened with the Thunder on the fastbreak early in the third quarter. Westbrook was moving from left-to-right across the middle of the floor with the ball while Oladipo streaked down the right wing.

With the Rockets defense collapsing, Westbrook reached halfcourt and fired a bounce pass that sliced through the opposition.

Oladipo finished with the clean dunk.

Still not sure it beats this one, but I think we’ll have to compare once the season comes to a close.