Raymond Felton

Associated Press

After fourth-straight loss, Thunder have long closed-door team meeting

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Team meetings rarely solve problems. They let players and coaches vent, it can help clear the air, but most of the time they don’t translate to much on the court.

We’ll see if the slow-starting Oklahoma City Thunder change that dynamic.

Thursday night, after blowing an 18-point lead and falling to the Denver Nuggets due to another terrible fourth quarter performance, the team held a closed-door meeting, reports Fred Katz of the Norman-Transcript.

“You have to talk about it. You have to look at it. You have to be up front with everybody,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Everybody’s got to be held accountable for what’s going on.”

“Meetings just make sure we all stay together no matter what,” point guard Raymond Felton said. “Everybody said their piece. Coach said his piece…Right now, we going through something, and we got to stick together no matter what.”

In the fourth quarter Thursday night, the Thunder shot 38 percent while allowing the Nuggets to hit 53 percent. Throughout the game (and the season) it felt like the Thunder’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were just taking turns, not working and playing in an offense or off each other. Then in the fourth it was all Westbrook, he was 1-of-6 in the fourth, while Paul George got just one shot in the final 12 minutes. Westbrook was 6-of-22 on the night, and in the fourth he took some difficult shots.

The Thunder make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league, and they get the more of their offense out of isolation than any team. As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, OKC now has just three assisted field goals in the final five minutes of a game within five points all season. Meanwhile their defense struggles in the clutch as well.

OKC needs to figure out how to get this together, because it’s highly unlikely this roster is back in this form next season (George is a free agent, and if he stays and ‘Melo opts in the tax bill becomes so ridiculous there is no chance the small market Thunder will pay it, no matter what owner Clay Bennett says publicly). They need to get it together sooner rather than later.

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

Clippers make changes, but progress?

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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.

Chris Paul is fantastic, the best point guard between Magic Johnson and Stephen Curry.

Paul’s departure might also help the Clippers – in the short- and long-term.

The same unrelenting unacceptance of anything less than perfection that drives Paul to personal greatness can also grate those around him. J.J. Redick spoke openly of a loss of joy. After six seasons together, Paul’s message might have worn especially thin on Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. This could be a breath of fresh air in the locker room.

L.A’s return in the trade with the Rockets – Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick – certainly softens the blow. That’s 1.5 starting-caliber players, 3.5 rotation-caliber players and a first-rounder – a very nice return if Paul were leaving anyway.

Long-term, it’s easy to see how committing $201 million over five years to a 32-year-old could backfire. The Clippers reportedly balked at that five-year max offer, but even the four-year max would’ve meant paying Paul $43 million at age 35.

There was a fine case for the Clippers to get younger and leaner (and happier) without Paul. Maybe they could’ve even ridden their Paul-built prestige, unprecedented in franchise history, and the L.A. market to chase the biggest free agents in the next couple years.

Except they didn’t do that.

The Clippers fell right back into win-now mode with risky bets.

They re-signed Griffin to a five-year max contract worth more than $171 million. They signed-and-traded for Danilo Gallinari, guaranteeing the forward nearly $65 million over three years and flipping the Houston first-rounder (while also shedding the overpaid Jamal Crawford).

Griffin, Gallinari and Beverley – the centerpiece of the Paul trade – are all nice players. But they all also carry significant injury risk. The 28-year-old Griffin has missed 83 games the last three years. The 29-year-old Gallinari has missed 203 games the last seven years, and he already hurt his thumb punching an opponent while playing for Italy. The 29-year-old Beverley has missed 78 games the last four years.

Injuries could derail any season with that trio leading the team, and whether the Clippers can shift courses anytime soon is out of their control. They have more than $49 million tied to player options for DeAndre Jordan ($24,119,025), Austin Rivers ($12.65 million), Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million) and Wesley Johnson ($6,134,520) next summer .

Even just the likeliest of those four, Austin Rivers, opting in would leave L.A. without max cap space. I’d also bet on Johnson, who has fallen into Doc Rivers’ doghouse, opting in.

Will the Clippers want Jordan and Teodosic to opt in or out? Those are mysteries – a particularly high-stakes one with Jordan, a premier center who will turn 30 next year.

Jordan’s situation will be especially tricky given Griffin and Gallinari. Griffin might be best at center, and Gallinari is certainly optimized at power forward. Does Jordan add more talent or create more of a logjam on this team?

At this point, I would’ve rather just maxed out Paul and Griffin for five years and hoped the franchises problems stemmed from bad luck. Foolproof? Hardly, especially because even if luck were the culprit, the people involved believing otherwise could’ve had lasting destructive effects on their mindsets.

It’s also worth noting that the Clippers didn’t necessarily have that choice. Paul might have left for James Harden and the Rockets even with a five-year max offer from L.A.. Re-signing Paul could’ve also pushed out Griffin.

There’s no choice but to grade the Clippers moves with some guesses at the counterfactual.

At least they clearly did well on some smaller moves.

Teodosic, who starred in Europe, is an intriguing 30-year-old rookie. Willie Reed appeared to be nice value at the minimum, but a domestic-violence charge is concerning. Kudos to owner Steve Ballmer for spending to acquire second-rounders Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell.

Still, all these smaller additions must be weighed against the smaller departures: Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton and Crawford. Those are several contributors heading out the door.

One key person staying? Coach Doc Rivers, who was stripped of his presidency after a lousy front-office tenure.

But how much did the Clippers really learn from the Rivers era? They put Lawrence Frank, another coach with no front-office experience before arriving in L.A., in charge of roster construction.

At least Frank can focus on only one job, not the two Rivers was handling. And Jerry West, Michael Winger and Trent Redden will provide a depth of front-office expertise this franchise was sorely lacking.

With lots of new faces and titles, the Clippers are in a more captivating place – but one that doesn’t look substantively different enough to be preferable to their old place.

Offseason grade: C-

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.

Report: Thunder, Raymond Felton agree to one-year deal

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We all know the numbers from last season in Oklahoma City: When Russell Westbrook was on the court the Thunder outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, when he sat they were outscored by 8.9. The Thunder did keep the best players on with Westbrook to help him chase the triple-double mark and an MVP, but this team was not deep.

This summer the Thunder have addressed that concern. Paul George is obviously a big help (you can stagger him and Westbrook at times), but also they have added depth.

To that point, they are adding veteran Raymond Felton to the point guard mix, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

While no price is given, it would have to be for the veteran minimum.

Felton has issues at age 33, including his three-point shot and a career of conditioning concerns, but he’s an upgrade over Norris Cole and Semaj Christon. Felton can get some points off the drive, is a solid floor general, and is physically strong enough to defend larger guards. The Clippers needed 21 minutes a game out of him last season, but if the Thunder can cut that closer to 15-17 most nights, that should work and give them decent minutes behind Westbrook.