Paul George on Thunder: “This feels like a championship team”

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They have an MVP, top-five NBA player. They have another All-NBA player who is a strong wing defender. They now have an aging all-star who still can get buckets with the best of them. There is a strong collection of role players who can help form a solid defense.

On paper, there’s a lot to like with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Paul George realizes that, as he said to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“This feels like a championship team,” George told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m in a good place. I know Russ (Westbrook) is in a good place. Melo is motivated more than ever…You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, (and) we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan), (and) as you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.”

Championships? Plural? That implies the team would stay together, and sorry Thunder fans, but that is far from a sure thing. First, financially there is no realistic way Oklahoma City can afford to sign Russell Westbrook and Paul George max deals (which they both will get) and keep Anthony if he opts into the final year of his contract for just shy of $28 million.

OKC is a small market team that simply would lose a lot of money to keep the band together, and this ownership group traded James Harden out of fear of a massive luxury tax bill. (They will pay a tax bill of about $24 million for this season if the roster stays as is.)

Also, George’s camp made it very clear during the run-up to his trade he plans to test free agency and has a strong lean to the Lakers next season. He may be more likely to stay in OKC now after the trade, but how much more?

However, George is right, this team does look like a roster that could contend for a title most years — and maybe be in the mix this year. We will put aside the Warriors challenge for a moment (they are still the clear favorites if they stay healthy) and get to the big question for the Thunder:

Will their big three learn to sacrifice, learn to mesh, learn to play together as a team as a championship team does fast enough? The 2008 Celtics did, but that team of veterans has been the exception. It took LeBron’s Miami Heat two seasons to learn how to win, and the same when he came back to Cleveland. OKC doesn’t have two seasons, they have to do it fast. It’s possible, but not easy.

George is right, this is an excellent Oklahoma City team. The Thunder are now right in the middle of that second tier in the West with Houston (another team that has to learn to mesh and sacrifice) and the Spurs. That’s a great place to be.

Is it a place George wants to stay? That question will hang over the Thunder all season.

 

LeBron James, Stephen Curry captains as All-Star starters named

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LeBron James, you are on the clock.

LeBron was the top overall vote-getter in the NBA All-Star balloting by the fans (2,638,294 votes) and that — along with votes from the media and current players to ensure he was in — has him as one of the two captains for the All-Star Game (Feb. 18 in Los Angeles). Stephen Curry was the top vote-getter in the West (2,379,494 votes) and he will be the other captain.

This year those two captains will pick the team — playground style — first from the pool of other starters selected by fans, media, and current players, then from the list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week). LeBron and Curry do not have to choose from their own conference, but here are the starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
James Harden
Kevin Durant
Anthony Davis
DeMarcus Cousins

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
DeMar DeRozan
LeBron James
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Joel Embiid

This is Embiid’s first All-Star Game, it’s LeBron’s 14th (one behind Kobe Bryant’s all-time record of 15). Anthony Davis is back after dropping a record 52 points in last year’s All-Star Game, and with him and Cousins starting it’s the first time New Orleans has had two starters.

In the East, Victor Oladipo and Kristaps Porzingis both just missed the cut (the players had him as a starter over Embiid, but the fans and media did not), and in the West it was Russell Westbrook and Draymond Green who were just on the outside looking in (the fans voted Green a starter, while the media had LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting five. All of them are basically locks to be selected by the coaches for the All-Star team.

Here is the voting breakdown, where each player’s score is weighted based on 50 percent for fan vote, 25 percent for player vote, and 25 percent for media vote [if you care, the formula to get the weighted score is (Fan Rank * 2 + Player Rank + Media Rank)/4].

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *#LeBron James (Cleveland)      1      2      1      1.25
2. *Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)      2      1      1      1.5
3. *Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)      3      4      3      3.25
4. Kristaps Porzingis (New York)      4      3      4      3.75
5. Kevin Love (Cleveland)      5      6      7      5.75
6. Al Horford (Boston)      7      8      5      6.75
7. Andre Drummond (Detroit)      9      5      6      7.25
8. Jayson Tatum (Boston)      6      12      8      8.0
9. Enes Kanter (New York)      8      9      8      8.25
10. Dwight Howard (Charlotte)      10      13      8      10.25

 

Eastern Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Kyrie Irving (Boston)      1      1      1      1.0
2. *DeMar DeRozan (Toronto)      2      2      2      2.0
3. Victor Oladipo (Indiana)      4      3      3      3.5
4. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia)      3      6      6      4.5
5. John Wall (Washington)      6      4      4      5.0
6. Bradley Beal (Washington)      9      5      4      6.75
7. Isaiah Thomas (Cleveland)      7      9      6      7.25
8. Kyle Lowry (Toronto)      8      7      6      7.25
9. Dwyane Wade (Cleveland)      5      15      6      7.75
10. Eric Bledsoe (Milwaukee)      12      10      6      10.0

 

*–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Western Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Kevin Durant (Golden State)      1      1      1      1.0
2. *Anthony Davis (New Orleans)      3      2      2      2.5
3. *DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans)      4      3      4      3.75
4. Draymond Green (Golden State)      2      7      6      4.25
5. Paul George (Oklahoma City)      5      6      7      5.75
6. LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio)      8      4      3      5.75
7. Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota)      9      5      4      6.75
8. Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)      6      8      9      7.25
9. Carmelo Anthony (Oklahoma City)      7      9      9      8.0
10. Kyle Kuzma (L.A. Lakers)      10      12      9      10.25

    

Western Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *#Stephen Curry (Golden State)      1      1      2      1.25
2. *James Harden (Houston)      3      2      1      2.25
3. Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City)      4      3      3      3.5
4. Manu Ginobili (San Antonio)      2      8      7      4.75
5. Klay Thompson (Golden State)      5      9      5      6.0
6. Chris Paul (Houston)      7      7      5      6.5
7. Damian Lillard (Portland)      8      4      7      6.75
8. Jimmy Butler (Minnesota)      9      6      4      7.0
9. Devin Booker (Phoenix)      10      4      7      7.75
10. Lonzo Ball (L.A. Lakers)      6      13      7      8.0

 

*–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Pharrell and N.E.R.D to headline NBA All-Star halftime show

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NEW YORK (AP) — The NBA announced Thursday that 11-time Grammy winner Pharrell and his hip-hop-rock band N.E.R.D will headline the halftime show at the 2018 NBA All-Star game in Los Angeles next month.

Fergie, who has eight Grammys, will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to tip-off. Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies will perform the national anthem of their home country.

The Feb. 18 game will air live at 8 p.m. Eastern on TNT from the Staples Center. It will be seen in more than 200 countries.

Pharrell and the band, which released its fifth studio album last month, will perform a medley of chart-topping hits. Fergie released her second full-length album, “Double Dutchess,” and a companion visual album in September. She is a host of the new Fox show “The Four: Battle for Stardom.”

Kevin Hart will open the night.

 

Magic’s Aaron Afflalo suspended two games for swing at Nemanja Bjelica

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This wasn’t two guys yelling into a locker room after a game, this was an actual fight. With an actual haymaker punch being thrown — and missing.

Aaron Afflalo and Nemanja Bjelica had been going back-and-forth all game Tuesday night, then it bubbled over when Jamal Crawford missed a jumper, Bjelica charged right at Afflalo while going for an offensive board, Afflalo blocked him like an offensive lineman, and then it got out of control.

The league announced Thursday that Afflalo has been suspended two games for throwing a haymaker. Both men were ejected from that game, but there is no further punishment for Bjelica (which is fair, Afflalo was the instigator here, Bjelica ended it with a headlock).

Glad to see this suspension was more than one game — if Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green get two games for an incident where there wasn’t a punch thrown, this had to be at least equal to that.

LeBron James says this season has been “most challenging” one

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Kyrie Irving is gone. His replacement, Isaiah Thomas, missed the first couple months of the season and is still trying to get into game shape and find his groove on the court with a new team. Other players have missed games, Kevin Love has moved to center, and the Cavaliers have looked older and slower — particularly on defense — and with that the cloud of LeBron James potentially leaving the team this summer gets darker and darker.

Throw in that LeBron — in his 15th NBA season — is eighth in the entire league in total minutes played, and his usage rate is 10th in the league when he is on the floor, and you can feel the burden on him.

LeBron has responded with an MVP-level season, but as the Cavaliers have struggled going 2-8 in their last 10 games, he admitted to Dave McMenamin of ESPN that this season has been very hard.

“It’s been very challenging,” James said after practice Wednesday. “Just from the simple fact of how many guys have been in and out. This is a difficult year for our team. Seems like I say that every year, but this one has been even more challenging.

“With everybody who has been out and coming back in, and the rotations, and things of that nature, it’s been very challenging on our team. But we have to figure it out. At the end of the day, we have a game every other day or every two days just like everybody else in the NBA. We have to go out and play.”

The roster shakeup of losing Irving — and with Thomas still trying to find his spots with this team after missing so much time — along with the other injuries is hard to underestimate. This goes beyond the usual mid-season Cavaliers malaise, with this roster they don’t have the offense to cover up the glaring defensive issues that have plagued them since last season (they were 29th in the NBA in defense after the All-Star break last season).

Also, LeBron’s comment seems to be part of the Cavaliers coming to the realization that they are not good enough to win a title with this team as constructed. In past years they believed if they got it together they could compete with anyone, after Monday’s loss to the Warriors they seem to realize that is not the case. Maybe that attitude changes come the playoffs — get out of the East, which they still have to be favorites to do, and they get a shot — but reality seems to have hit this roster.