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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

At least the Raptors avoided a catastrophic slide

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I’m 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.

After his team’s fourth straight playoff disappointment – even the team’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals included barely scraping by with home-court advantage in the first two rounds then losing in the most lopsided six-game series ever – Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared a need for a “culture reset.”

How he planned to implement that was another question.

DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas alone were guaranteed more than $160 million. Other players were also owed enough that Toronto would have only limited means to replace its best player, Kyle Lowry, if he walked in unrestricted free agency – which seemed quite possible.

It appeared Ujiri was on the brink of pushing the button on a halfhearted detonation. It could have taken the Raptors years to tear down and maybe even longer to build back up.

And it’s not as if Ujiri had complete control. Lowry could have left and made preservation an unavailable option.

But after the foundation of the Raptors’ best era in franchise history shook and settled, they rebuilt a downsized structure atop it that includes only some of the previous furnishings.

Toronto re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year contracts – Lowry for $93 million and Ibaka for $65 million. The players get fairly high salaries, but at least the Raptors can move onto their next chapter in a few years. It’s a logical compromise.

Those deals came at a major immediate cost, though. Toronto is apparently unwilling to pay the luxury tax for a team that has shown no way to get past the Cavaliers. So, there was a large drain on production around the Raptors’ top players. Outgoing this summer:

Toronto even had to include a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second-round pick and incur a $1 million cap hit each of the next three seasons from Justin Hamilton’s contract for Brooklyn to take Carroll.

The only major contributor going against the tide and toward Toronto is C.J. Miles, a sweet-shooting swingman who can defend well when not outmuscled. He’ll help the Raptors. He won’t come close to replacing all that they lost.

Toronto is counting on all the young talent is has cultivated to step up. Norman Powell and Delon Wright are definitely in line for bigger roles, and Pascal Siakam probably is, too. The Raptors would probably like to cut bait on Jonas Valanciunas to elevate Jacob Poeltl. O.G. Anunoby, Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are also in the pipeline as potential rotation players.

Credit Toronto for identifying and developing this deep crop of youngsters, who allowed for the team’s strategy this summer. These players have been preparing, and at some point – ideally while still on cheap contracts – they deserved the opportunity contribute.

But make no mistake: The Raptors downgraded across the board. The supporting cast around Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka – a trio in or near its prime – is less-equipped to help a team designed at the top to win now.

It feels like this team’s best chance of winning the East has come and gone. LeBron James is still in Cleveland. The Celtics have probably already overtaken Toronto, and the 76ers’ rise appears inevitable.

The Raptors have had a good few years. They might have a few more good ones left.

But it seems their self-imposed budget has resigned them to playing out the string on a plan that has already peaked.

Offseason grade: C-

NBA free agency winners and losers (plus some teams on the bubble)

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We’ve reached the point in the summer where the big move are made, and now teams are mostly just rounding out their rosters. There could still be a Carmelo Anthony trade, or maybe an unexpected shoe drops, but rosters are basically set now.

Who won the summer? Who lost? Let’s take a look at the list.

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder. One year ago Kevin Durant walked, and despite the contract extension last summer and the MVP this summer, the risk of Russell Westbrook following him out the door in 2018 was real enough that OKC needed to do something bold. Such as trade for Paul George. It was a master stroke by Sam Presti that should vault Oklahoma City into the top half of the West. The Thunder made good moves in the rest of the rotation, too, bringing back Andre Roberson and getting Patrick Patterson on a steal of a deal. The risk here is that George is a free agent next summer with eyes on the Lakers, and Westbrook has not signed an extension past this season (there’s no reason for him to, he doesn’t make more money sooner doing it) — both could walk next summer. Still, it’s a gamble the Thunder had to take, because if those two bond and thrive, if this team wins enough, they both might stay. It’s all a roll of the dice by the Thunder, but a good one.

Winner: Minnesota Timberwolves. Tom Thibodeau is in a distinctly good mood walking around Las Vegas Summer League — and he should be. With the addition Jimmy Butler at the two, plus adding Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford, the Timberwolves have gone from “we’re going to be good in a few years” to “we’re going to be a playoff team next season and potentially a contender in a couple of years.” Minnesota still has the borderline All-NBA big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who is still improving, and Andrew Wiggins. They need to start thinking about affording this all when Towns and Wiggins come off their rookie deals, but the Timberwolves are poised to be a force.

Loser: New York Knicks. There was a positive: They dumped Phil Jackson before he could ruin the team’s free agent summer. That should make the relationship with face-of-the-franchise Kristaps Porzingis better. However, turns out the Knicks didn’t need Jackson to have a bad summer. If an owner is going to let go of the guy at the top of basketball operations days before free agency starts, he had better have a quality “Plan B” in place and ready to go. New York eventually talked to David Griffin about coming on board, but he wisely wanted his own people in place and full autonomy over the roster, and the Knicks balked at that so he walked away. Steve Mills has stepped into the top job, and his one big move was to overpay to get Tim Hardaway Jr. — four years, $71 million for a guy who can shoot, but is not a good shot creator for others and is a minus defensively. In a tight market, they overpaid. The Knicks are adrift and trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, but finding that a challenge (Houston still is there, but the Rockets don’t want to give back much as they want to contend). I feel bad for Knicks fans, it’s hard to see how they get out of this cycle.

On the bubble: The Los Angeles Clippers. Normally if the team’s best player leaves, that team falls instantly into the loser’s bracket — and the Clippers lost Chris Paul to the Rockets. But Los Angeles salvaged their summer somewhat by keeping their talisman player in Blake Griffin, trading for Danilo Gallinari, and doing better than anyone should have hoped in a shotgun trade with Houston (Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell are good young rotation players, plus Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams can help right now). If Griffin and Gallinari can stay healthy for 70+ games each (no given), Los Angeles should be in the mix for one of the final playoff slots in the West. From there, they can start to formulate how to rebuild on the fly, but they will not bottom out.

Winner: Gordon Hayward and the Celtics. It’s almost always smart business to zig when everyone else zags — while much of the talent in the NBA went west to line up against the Warriors, Hayward went East, joined up with the Celtics and will go at LeBron James and the Cavaliers (a team showing cracks in the walls). For Hayward, he made the bold and smart basketball move. For the Celtics, they got their man and with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford on the roster, plus the emerging Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum (both who have looked good in Summer League), the Celtics are poised to be a threat to Cleveland this year and be the team to beat in the East in a couple of years. It’s not hard to picture a Boston/Minnesota Finals in our future in a few years.

Winner: The Trail Blazers’ Twitter Account. These remain still the best Tweets of the Summer, after the Blazers’ were involved in a trade where they got cash back.

Loser: Dan Gilbert, Cavaliers owner. The Cavaliers themselves are not losers — they will bring back the best team in the East from last season, and while Boston got better much fo the rest of the conference got weaker, setting up a chance to get LeBron James and an older roster to get rest and peak during the playoffs. But Gilbert’s unwillingness to pay the going rate — and give reasonable autonomy — to one of the better GMs in the game in David Griffin hurt his team this summer and opened the door further to the best player in the game leaving in a year. Griffin talked to Chauncey Billups, a guy who will be a team president somewhere in the future, but again he lowballed him on pay and Billups wasn’t sold on the working environment. Sense a pattern here? There are cracks in the walls in Cleveland, and it all falls right at the feet of Dan Gilbert.

On the bubble: Sacramento Kings. The Kings summer was not a disaster — they brought in George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter to mentor an interesting group of youth such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Heild, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Justin Jackson. With that, the Kings are not going to be one of the worst teams in the NBA and they have good role models in house. It’s also not what I would have done because, first, they are not going to make the playoffs with this team in a deep West. For me, one veteran or so makes sense, but I would have played the kids heavy minutes this season and taken the losses because they have their 2018 first-round pick (but not 2019), preserve the cap space, then go into what will be a much tighter free agent market next summer and get veterans. That would have required patience that the Kings rarely show. And all that said, what the Kings did this summer was not a disaster, they will be okay.

Winner: James Harden and the Rockets. I can give you 228 million reasons James Harden is a winner. The man got paid — and he deserves it. Also, you have to love what the Rockets did getting Chris Paul and starting the Game of Thrones rush in the West. It’s fair to question how CP3 and Harden will mesh, or how much better Carmelo Anthony would make them, but the bottom line is this was one of the four best teams in the NBA last season and they added Chris Paul. The Rockets may be next in line for the throne in the West (should the Warriors stumble for whatever reason), and that’s a good place to be.

Winner: Golden State Warriors. I don’t love putting the defending NBA champs and head-and-shoulders best team in the league on this list, it’s just the rich getting richer, but I have no choice. They killed the off-season. They locked up Stephen Curry. They retained Kevin Durant — and he took $9.5 million less than his potential max, the Warriors also were able to retain Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, and Zaza Pachulia. To that they added a good draft pick in Jordan Bell, a shooter in Nick Young (who could blossom there ala JaVale McGee), and they stole underrated Omri Casspi, who fits perfectly into their style. The Warriors just keep doing things right.

On the bubble: New Orleans Pelicans. Their one big move was expected: they overpaid Jrue Holiday to keep him in house. They had no choice, they didn’t have the cap space to replace him. This team is going to make the playoffs in a deep West — and keep DeMarcus Cousins next summer as a free agent — or there is going to be a top-to-bottom house cleaning in basketball operations. The entire organization seems to be acting like it’s on pins and needles. It all comes down to how the gambit of pairing Anthony Davis and Cousins works out (and plenty of people around the league are not sold it will).

Loser: Utah Jazz. It pains me to put them here because they did everything right, it just wasn’t enough. They lost Gordon Hayward and will take a step back. Utah is not terrible and has pieces to retool around — Rudy Gobert remains one of the best centers in the game, guys like Alec Burks and Rodney Hood are good, and Ricky Rubio can run the show — but it’s all not the same without Hayward.

Winner: Denver Nuggets. This team just missed out on the playoffs a year ago, mostly because their defense wasn’t good enough, then they went out and traded out Danilo Gallinari for Paul Millsap — an upgrade, far more durable, and a guy who will give them something on defense. They have a quality young core with Nikola Jokic (why have they not locked him up with an extension yet?), Jamal Murray and others, and the Nuggets look like a playoff team if healthy. After the disastrous Brian Shaw years, the Nuggets have rebuilt their team culture and roster into something quite good.

Paul George: If Thunder reach conference finals or beat Warriors, ‘I’d be dumb to want to leave’

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Paul George supposedly told his former Pacers teammates for years he wanted to join the Lakers. George publicly flirted with the Lakers. The Lakers reportedly received word not to trade for George, because he might just sign in Los Angeles anyway in 2018 free agency. George told the Pacers he’d leave Indiana, reportedly preferably for the Lakers. Even after the Thunder traded for him, George was still reportedly telling friends he planned to sign with the Lakers.

Is George, a Southern California native, truly hell-bent on the Lakers?

Now, we can hear it straight from him.

George, via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

“I grew up a Lakers and a Clippers fan,” George says. “I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city. But it’s definitely been overstated. For me, it’s all about winning. I want to be in a good system, a good team. I want a shot to win it. I’m not a stats guy. I’m playing this game to win and build a legacy of winning. I’ve yet to do that. I’m searching for it. If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that.”

“It’s too early for L.A.,” he says. “It would have to be a situation where the ball gets rolling and guys are hopping on. This guy commits, that guy commits. ‘Oh s—, now there’s a team forming.’ It has to be like that.”

“I’m in OKC, so hopefully me and Russ do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation, why not recruit someone to come build it with us? I’m open in this whole process.”

I’m a bit surprised George laid down such direct benchmarks – reaching the conference finals or upsetting the Warriors – but they, especially the former, are achievable.

Russell Westbrook is the best teammate George, who reached consecutive conference finals in Indiana, has ever played with. The Thunder have built a quality supporting cast with Steven Adams, a re-signed Andre Roberson and newly acquired Patrick Patterson. Even Raymond Felton plugs a major hole at backup point guard.

The Thunder – who won several coin-flip games – probably weren’t as good as their 47-35 record last year, so assessing improvement can be difficult. But they should be better this year.

George is a great fit. Westbrook’s singular offensive ability allows Oklahoma City to fill the floor with defense-first players, and George is another wing stopper with Roberson. For a star, George is also extremely comfortable playing off the ball – a must around Westbrook. Yet, George can also take the lead, easing the burden on Westbrook at times.

Staying with the Thunder could look very appealing next year.

But so could joining the Lakers, especially if George gives them a hometown advantage. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. aren’t yet ready to win, but George is spending a season of their growing pains in Oklahoma City. By next summer, the Lakers’ young core will be closer to ascending. The Lakers, who already dumped Timofey Mozgov, are also working toward clearing enough cap space to lure multiple stars at once, as George alluded to.

He spoke in terms of other players joining Los Angeles first, though his commitment would go a long way in recruiting. The Lakers probably can’t bank on that at this point.

Neither can the Thunder.

But the battle lines are being drawn – surprisingly bluntly, by George himself.