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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.

 

The Good, the bad, the ugly: A breakdown of the Carmelo Anthony trade

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It was always a question of when, not if, Carmelo Anthony would get traded. However, Anthony’s no-trade clause and desire to go to Houston with Chris Paul and James Harden led the drama to drag out all summer. When Anthony realized his choice was to add teams to his list or go to Knicks camp because a Houston deal was not happening, he added the Thunder, and well, that escalated quickly. Thunder GM Sam Presti and new Knicks GM Scott Perry had a long history, they had already laid some groundwork on possible scenarios, and when Anthony opened the door, Presti and the Thunder rushed through.

Anthony is headed to the Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and Chicago’s 2018 second round pick (which OKC controlled). The trade will be finalized Monday with the league.

Let’s break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of this trade.

THE GOOD

The Oklahoma City Thunder. One year ago, when Kevin Durant announced he was joining the gold rush in California, other teams were speculating how things could — more likely would — fall apart for OKC. Would they have to trade Westbrook when the frustrated star wasn’t happy? How long before everything they built fell apart. Except it didn’t work out that way — Westbrook signed an extension (essentially for one year), then went on to win the MVP. This summer the Thunder went out and got Paul George and Anthony to go around Westbrook, three stars on a team that already had a solid foundation of role players (Steven Adams, Patrick Paterson, and Andre Roberson, for example).

The Thunder went all in — and it’s a brilliant move. It’s a risky one because Anthony, George, and Westbrook (when he opts out) all will be free agents next summer and they could all walk, but if the Thunder had done nothing but run back last year’s team Westbrook almost certainly walks. Now, they have as good a shot as anyone at dethroning the Warriors. Yes, a healthy Golden State team may be too much, but when you have a superstar in his prime like Westbrook, you go for it. The Thunder went for it.

The big question is will OKC’s big three learn to sacrifice, and will they do it fast enough? Talk to players that won a ring and they talk about needing to sacrifice part of what they do for the good of the team (taking fewer shots, or Andre Iguodala coming off the bench, and there are other examples). These three have not had to make those kinds of sacrifices before. Will they? And if they will, can they figure it all out fast enough (because all three are almost certainly not back with the Thunder, the cost would be too great)?

Still, this is a bold stroke move. You have to love it.

Sam Presti. The Thunder GM has long been seen as smart and shrewd — he drafted both Westbrook and Harden in spots most teams thought were too high. But this must be his greatest summer yet. Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post put it best.

Next time I buy a car, I want Presti to negotiate. I may only be able to afford a Toyota Corolla, but he’s going to get me a Tesla model X.

Russell Westbrook. Last season it was Russell Westbrook against the world, and he won. He averaged a triple-double — the first player to do it since Oscar Robertson — and dragged the Thunder to the playoffs. But now he’s got some serious help. Westbrook showed he can carry a team, now he’s got the chance to show he can lead a team, that he can make players — superstar players — better.

That is a double-edged sword. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge — the Thunder just added two players with much higher usage rates than any Westbrook teammates he had last season. As asked above, is Westbrook ready to make the sacrificed needed to win at the highest levels? If Westbrook is up to the challenge he is in the mix for another MVP award, but if not things could move from the good to the ugly category in OKC.

Carmelo Anthony… but be careful what you wish for.
He is out of what had become a toxic environment with him in New York. He is with two other superstars who have a chance to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Anthony may not have gotten his wish to go to Houston, but he got his wish to go to a team that is relevant. A team that could be on a big stage in May.

If Billy Donovan can convince Olympic ‘Melo to be on this team, the Thunder become even more dangerous. Olympic ‘Melo a guy that didn’t worry about minutes or starting, didn’t stop the ball on offense but flowed with the game, and he’s a guy that didn’t demand touches. Anthony could be splitting a lot of time with Patrick Patterson (once Patterson gets healthy) and when OKC needs defense it may turn to Patterson at the four (or Andre Roberson for stretches). Will Anthony make the sacrifices and accept that? Could he lead the second unit for stretches while Westbrook and George rest? Anthony got what he wanted, now he has to prove he deserves it.

The New York Knicks. This trade isn’t really good or bad for the Knicks, but the movie was not “The Good, the bad, and the meh” so we had to put them somewhere. Here is what is good about this trade for the Knicks: They get to make this Kristaps Porzingis‘ team. He is out of the shadow of Anthony, and while the Knicks will lose a lot of games this year, they have a clear path now going forward (Porzingis will need to step up into that leadership role). Also, Kanter is a solid big man (so long as they don’t expect much defense from him). Maybe McDermott will play enough defense in a contract year to provide value beyond his shooting. That 2018 second-round round pick is essentially a late first rounder, the Bulls are terrible so that pick will be no worse than 33 or 34. They can get a good player there.

THE BAD

The New York Knicks. Remember how much the Knicks gave up to get Carmelo Anthony? Four quality players went West, plus picks and other pieces. It is still looked back on around the league as a textbook example of how not to trade for a superstar — don’t strip your team to the bone to get one guy (the Knicks made a host of other mistakes that, combined with Anthony, led to an up-and-down tenure for him in NYC). This trade was the opposite of that, the Knicks didn’t get much in return. The Knicks had been seeking a starter-level wing player, they didn’t get that. They got a pick, but it’s a second rounder. At least they didn’t take any bad contracts on in the trade. The Knicks take a step back with this deal, and while that may be the best thing for them, it still lands them in the bad category for now.

The Los Angeles Lakers. Paul George probably is still going to leave OKC and become a Laker next summer, his camp made his thinking very clear in the run-up to his trade.  However, if George and this improved Thunder team make a run — let’s say 57+ wins then they get to the Western Conference Finals, things that are certainly possible — George and Westbrook are more likely to look at each other and decide to stay together with the Thunder. This is bad for the Lakers because the chances of George leaving Oklahoma City just went down, even if it’s just slightly.

THE UGLY

The Houston Rockets. This is ugly for them on two fronts. First, they thought they were going to get Anthony. There was nobody else in the bidding (because ‘Melo wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause for anyone else) so they had all the leverage. The Knicks didn’t want to deal with the circus of bringing Anthony to camp, they might cave, and the Rockets would get their man. Except the Knicks didn’t cave, Anthony expanded his list, and ‘Melo is now headed to the Thunder.

Second, this puts another elite team in the West. There are now four potential contenders in a conference that is more Game of Thrones than NBA: House Warriors, House Spurs (everyone sleeps on them, don’t do it), House Rockets, and now House Thunder. Those may well be the four best teams in the NBA (only the Cavaliers and maybe Boston could come close to saying they are on that level). Golden State will probably end up sitting on the Iron Thone next June, but there is going to be a lot of hard battles and between now and then — and two of these teams aren’t even going to get out of the second round, which will be seen as a failure. Houstons’ road got harder with this trade.

Thunder a two-star team once again

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

What’s the difference between the Russell WestbrookKevin Durant pairing and the Russell Westbrook-Paul George pairing?

Durant is better than George, sure. But Westbrook now is also better than the Westbrook who played with Durant. George might also fit better with Westbrook than Durant did, which can go a long way in overcoming the talent deficit.

For a star, George is exceptionally comfortable off the ball – important as Westbrook dove headfirst into controlling everything post-Durant last season. George can also be a lockdown defender. And when Westbrook sits, George can dominate the offense himself.

Plus, simply being a lesser player might help in some ways. While Durant and Westbrook countered each other for supremacy, George is clearly Westbrook’s sidekick. That understanding could help chemistry and, ultimately, performance.

The Thunder needed more spot-up shooting surrounding Westbrook and someone capable of creating when he sits. In George, they got both – for pennies on the dollar. The cost – Victor Oladipo (a fine player owed $84 million over the next four years) and Domantas Sabonis (the forgettable No. 11 pick last year) – was so low, Oklahoma City needn’t panic about George becoming a free agent in only one year. The Thunder could do enough damage just this season, also the final year of Westbrook’s contract unless he signs the offered super-max extension, to justify the trade.

The difference might be semantic, but we might be erring by treating Oklahoma City as merely an upgraded version of the team that lost in five games in the first round last year as opposed to a slightly reduced version of the team that was a perennial conference finalist when healthy.

Of course, this team has nobody as good as Serge Ibaka or James Harden were with the Thunder. But Oklahoma City boasts solid depth beyond its stars.

Patrick Patterson is the major addition, signed with the taxpayer mid-level exception. A stretch four and versatile defender, he should start – if healthy. I loved the signing when it occurred, but his subsequent knee surgery makes me wonder whether his low price tag is just due to being damaged goods. Patterson’s injury concern is the only reason I dropped the Thunder’s grade.

They also re-signed Andre Roberson to a reasonable three-year, $30 million contract. He’ll form a tenacious defensive duo with George and platoon with Alex Abrines, a dangerous shooter.

Down to minimum salaries, the Thunder still needed to find an NBA-caliber backup point guard – and did with Raymond Felton. The 33-year-old won’t necessarily solve Oklahoma City’s issues, but he should at least hold his own.

With Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and Jerami Grant returning, the Thunder can play big or small. They’ll have the luxury of developing No. 21 pick Terrance Ferguson slowly.

Of course, the timeline depends on whether George re-signs. The Lakers loom.

But Oklahoma City has already changed its entire paradigm. It’s no longer “Westbrook and the supporting cast.” It’s “Westbrook, George and the supporting cast.” To nab a star who transcends being grouped with Westbrook’s underlings without surrendering a single draft pick was remarkable.

For now, that’s more than enough.

Offseason grade: A

James Harden pledges to never leave Houston

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Rockets star James Harden donated $1 million to Harvey relief and then got personally involved.

That prompted this Twitter exchange:

Obviously, this is non-binding. If Harden ever leaves, he doesn’t even have to answer for this statement. He could also always spin it as, no matter where he’s playing, he’ll always have love for Houston and the Rockets.

A new owner creates uncertainty. Will Tilman Fertitta stick with general manager Daryl Morey, who has enlisted Harden as a partner in team-building? Will Fertitta spend as much as Leslie Alexander did to build good teams around Harden?

But Harden and the Rockets have shown major commitment to each other. Among players so young, perhaps only Kawhi Leonard (Spurs) is more likely to spend the rest of his career with the same franchise.

Houston Rockets sell for record $2.2 billion

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Update: The Rockets have announced the sale:

The Houston Rockets today announced that a definitive agreement has been signed for the purchase of the NBA franchise by Houston businessman Tilman J. Fertitta, sole owner of the Landry’s restaurant empire and Golden Nugget Casinos and Hotels. The transaction, which includes operation of the Toyota Center Arena, requires the approval of the NBA Board of Governors. Terms of the sale were not disclosed, and Mr. Fertitta has no other partners in connection with the transaction.

This process started back in July, and it is truly unfortunate that this announcement is occurring amidst the aftermath of one of the biggest tragedies in the history of our great City.

“I am truly honored to have been chosen as the next owner of the Houston Rockets.  This is a life-long dream come true,” said Fertitta, a native of Galveston and life-long resident of the Houston area.  “Leslie Alexander has been one of the best owners in all of sports, and I thank him immensely for this opportunity. He has the heart of a champion.    Lastly, out of respect for the NBA’s approval process, I can say no more other than I am overwhelmed with emotion to have this opportunity in my beloved city of Houston.”

“I am excited to welcome and pass the torch to Tilman. He is a Houstonian, business leader and committed to the success and excellence of the Rockets both on and off the basketball court,” said Leslie Alexander, the current Rockets owner.  “I have personally known Tilman for over 24 years and don’t think I could have found anyone more capable of continuing the winning tradition of our Houston Rockets.”

 

In 2014, Steve Ballmer paid a stunning $2 billion to buy the Clippers.

That record price for an NBA franchise has been broken.

Marc Berman of Fox 26:

Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg

Leslie Alexander selling the Rockets surprised everyone. But apparently Tilman Fertitta wasn’t slow to react – to the benefit of Alexander, who bought the team for $85 million in 1993.

Fertitta – who owns Golden Nugget Casinos and Landry’s restaurant company and hosts “Billion Dollar Buyer” on CNBC – is worth $3.1 billion, per Forbes. So, it seems likely he’ll have other investors. Celebrities like Beyonce and Hakeem Olajuwon have expressed interest.

The Rockets have been one of the NBA’s best teams under Alexander, winning championships in 1994 and 1995, and he further ingrained himself with the community with his Hurricane Harvey-relief donations. The team locked in James Harden to the richest contract extension in NBA history. Chris Paul will be eligible for a five-year, $207 million max contract next summer, and starting center Clint Capela will also be a free agent. With expensive but not easily movable Ryan Anderson still under contract, this team could get expensive in a hurry.

After years of steady leadership from Alexander, we’ll quickly learn Fertitta’s ownership style.