Russell Westbrook set to learn if his historic season was an MVP one

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A year ago, uncertainty surrounded Russell Westbrook.

Kevin Durant stunned the league by leaving Oklahoma City for rival Golden State in free agency. The four-time scoring champion and former MVP had been the central piece in making the Thunder one of the league’s elite teams since the franchise’s move to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Westbrook had played his entire NBA career alongside Durant, so questions about how Westbrook would respond immediately cropped up.

He defiantly answered them with memorable performances.

Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a season and won his second scoring title. He broke Robertson’s single-season record with 42 triple-doubles and led the Thunder to the playoffs. Now, he will join Houston’s James Harden and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as finalists for the league’s MVP award. The winner will be announced Monday at the inaugural NBA Awards show.

Westbrook gained satisfaction from the team’s success, which largely was fueled by his personal dominance.

“With everything happening last summer, people counted us out,” he said the day after Oklahoma City’s season ended. “They weren’t sure how many games we were going to win or how far we were going to go or whatever, but I think the group of guys, we never let that sink in our building. We stuck together, and that’s the thing I’m most proud about.”

Westbrook wasn’t just stat stuffing, either. The Thunder went 33-9 when he had a triple-double and 14-26 when he didn’t. He seemingly gained energy as the season progressed and was statistically better after the All-Star break than before. As for those late-game situations, he led the league with 10 points per game in the fourth quarter and was one of the most dynamic closers in the league.

Westbrook topped Robertson’s single-season, triple-double record on April 9 in Denver. His 36-foot game-winning dagger put the final touch on a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention.

Robertson himself showed up to the Thunder’s regular-season finale and endorsed Westbrook for the MVP award.

“What he has done has been historic in nature,” Robertson told the crowd that night. “He’s played with passion and pride and ability. It’s just outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”

Durant might be the least surprised player in the league. Westbrook was dominant while Durant was out with a foot injury during the 2014-15 season and claimed his first scoring title, but it wasn’t clear if he could do it all – score, dominate the boards, consistently feed his teammates and come through in big moments – for an entire season.

Turns out, he could.

In the second game of the season, he had 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a victory over Phoenix, the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975. On March 27, he had 13 points in a 3-minute barrage to rally the Thunder past Dallas. Two days later in Orlando, he scored 57 points and posted the most points ever in a triple-double. He hit a deep 3-pointer to force overtime, and eventually helped the Thunder win. In one of his most memorable games, he scored 47 points in a loss to Durant’s Warriors.

Harden and Leonard also had MVP-caliber seasons:

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JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON

As stunning as Westbrook’s triple-double binge was this season, Harden’s was impressive, too.

He posted 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets finish with the league’s third-best record. Harden, known primarily as a scorer throughout his career, shifted from shooting guard to point guard and was nearly unstoppable in coach Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

Harden led the league with 11.2 assists per game and finished second with 29.1 points per contest. In perhaps his best performance, he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve.

KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO

Leonard is the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s up for the honor again.

Yet, it was the 6-foot-7 forward’s offensive improvement that put him in the mix for the MVP award. He averaged 25.5 points this season after averaging 21.2 the previous year.

Leonard helped the Spurs finish with the league’s second-best record. He seemed to play as the stage got bigger.

He opened the season with a career-high 35 points in a blowout win over the Warriors. Leonard upped that career high with 41 points in a win over Cleveland on Jan. 21, and he dropped 39 points in a victory over Houston on March 6.

 

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s reported reaction to Knicks’ $71 million offer: ‘Man, that’s crazy’

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Knicks acting (now long-term) front-office leader Steve Mills signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet shocked some within the Knicks.

It also apparently shocked someone who wasn’t (yet) with New York – Hardaway himself.

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I was talking to somebody who would know about the Tim Hardaway Jr. scenario. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s first words after signing that contract: “Man, that’s crazy.”

In the likely event Hardaway doesn’t live up to this massive contract, he’ll get blamed – and the scorn will be hotter in New York.* That’s not fair, as Hardaway was just taking the money offered to him. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that much anywhere else. But it is reality.

*It’s a lesson Kyrie Irving, who could land anywhere, could stand to remember as he reportedly hopes for the Knicks to trade for him.

As hilarious as Hardaway’s response was, it doesn’t top Tyler Johnson for my favorite reaction to a loaded offer sheet.

Report: As Kyrie Irving rumors swirl, Timberwolves still negotiating extension with Andrew Wiggins

AP Photo/Jim Mone
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The Timberwolves were working on a contract extension for Andrew Wiggins.

Then, Kyrie Irving‘s trade request became public. He reportedly listed Minnesota among his preferred destinations. Jimmy Butler (a friend of Irving’s) and Karl-Anthony Towns have petitioned Timberwolves management to add Irving, and the team is exploring a deal. Wiggins fits perfectly what Cleveland is said to be seeking.

So, where do extension talks stand now?

Darren Wolfson of

The Timberwolves could simultaneously be exploring multiple paths. They might want to trade for Irving, even if it means including Wiggins. They might want an extension lined up with Wiggins in case they don’t. They’re not committed to either direction until they finalize something.

They’re not even committed to keeping Wiggins if they extend him.

It’d complicate an Irving trade, to be sure. Wiggins outgoing salary would still count as his actual salary ($7,574,323), but his incoming salary to Cleveland would count as the average annual salary of the entire deal – the final season of his rookie-scale contract and the extension years both included.

But there’s no time period after signing Wiggins to a rookie-scale extension where the Timberwolves would be prohibited from trading him. He could also sign an extension with the Cavs anytime between a trade and Oct. 16. Minnesota might be assessing Wiggins’ extension demands on behalf of Cleveland, which would surely be interested in extending him in accordance with a trade.

If the Timberwolves actually sign Wiggins to an extension, that’d send a big signal they don’t plan to trade him for Irving – but even that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Until a deal becomes official or more concrete word leaks of Minnesota’s plan, I wouldn’t assume a Wiggins-for-Irving deal is off the table.

Report: Kyrie Irving ‘very badly’ wants trade to Knicks

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Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, listed the Knicks among his preferred destinations in a trade.

Is New York his top choice?

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I got a phone call, and the voice on the other end of that phone call is a trustworthy person. And he was saying to me that Kyrie Irving very badly wants to be a New York Knick. Kyrie Irving wants to come home.

Irving is less valuable than Kristaps Porzingis and more valuable than Carmelo Anthony, and the Knicks can’t easily bridge either gap. They reportedly won’t trade Porzingis for Irving, a wise move. Anthony – who possesses a no-trade clause – is reportedly set on the Rockets. An Irving trade would almost certainly have to be centered around one of those two players.

Maybe Cleveland can work its way into a multi-team trade with Anthony going to Houston, but it’s unclear where the assets the Cavs are seeking would come from.

When Irving requested a trade, he should have known he’d lose control of the process. Locked up for two more years and without a no-trade clause, Irving has minimal sway. His relationship with the Cavaliers looks increasingly unworkable, but they could deal him anywhere.

That said, I can see why he’d want to go to New York – big market in his home area, a team he could take over. Even as Porzingis grows in stature, he’s not a ball-dominant player who’d step on Irving’s toes.

But this just feels like a Stephon Marbury redux. From owner James Dolan down, the Knicks are poorly run, and their stars – beloved when welcomed – usually leave with their reputations damaged.

By the way, what happened to the Spurs being Irving’s top choice? In a situation like this, sometimes people close to the player have differing preferences and leak accordingly. That could have just been someone near Irving pushing for his or her choice for the guard – and this could be, too.

If players thought this year’s free agent market was tight, next summer could be “nuclear winter”

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Plenty of agents spent this summer trying to explain to their clients that the summer of 2017 was not the summer of 2016 (one I know of even was thanking media members in Las Vegas who wrote about how tight the free agent market had gotten so he could show his clients). Players saw the ridiculous contracts of 2016 — Timofey Mozgov got four-years, $64 million; Bismack Biyombo got four years, almost $70 million; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, players deep into rosters were overpaid — and thought this summer it would be their turn.

Except it wasn’t. In 2016 the salary cap spiked from $70 million to $94 million and that meant 27 teams entered free agency under the cap (and the teams over it spent big to re-sign their own), and $5 billion in contracts were handed out. This summer, 14 teams were under the $99 million cap and about $3 billion was handed out — and once the stars such as James Harden got paid big, the market dried up and players got less than expected. Four-time All-Star and elite defender Paul Millsap would have been a clear max a year ago, he could “only” get three years (at age 31) at $4 million less than his max. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been a lock max in 2016, he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers for $18 million this summer. And further down the list guys like Rajon Rondo are signing team-friendly deals.

And next summer is going to be a far tighter market. As Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks of ESPN point out, the free agent class of 2018 is going to pay for the excess of 2016.

The early projections for 2018-19: nine teams with cap space, and potentially 10 teams paying luxury tax.

“The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year,” one team executive with authority to make personnel decisions told ESPN. “Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams.”

Another general manager put it this way to ESPN:

“What I see all the time is players not understanding why, ‘This player got this, but I get that?’ They want it to make sense and it just doesn’t make sense. I think you’ll see a lot of agents get fired.

“The top guys will always feed first and then the year of the cap spike, there was a lot left for everybody else to feed. Next year, the top players will still get theirs, and then there will be not much left.”

NBA teams are not going to negotiate deals off the mistakes of 2016, they see that as the outlier to be ignored.

The Summer of 2018 is loaded with top free agents who are going to get max contract offers from their own teams and those with enough cap space to try and poach them — LeBron James, Kevin Durant (he will re-sign with Warriors), Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, plus restricted guys who could see max deals such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. There’s even a second tier of guys who will be maxed out or close to it — Andrew Wiggins (extension eligible right now), DeAndre Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and others.

But that next tier down? How much will teams pay for Robert Covington? Aaron Gordon? Clint Capela? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Danny Green? And for guys counting on the one-year deals they signed this summer to boost their stock — we can use Derrick Rose as an example — even if they play well they may not see the money they expect.

The league and owners had wanted to smooth in the salary cap spike of 2016, raising it fair amount over three or five years to avoid the spending spree, but the players’ union rejected that idea. For the free agents in the summer of 2016 that worked out well. For the ones in the 2018… not so much.