Serge Ibaka

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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

Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia may miss Eurobasket with ankle injury

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When the Golden State Warriors won the title last June, Zaza Pachulia walked around the court with the Georgian flag draped around his shoulders. He’s a man proud of his nation, and he was excited to represent them this summer in EuroBasket (after his government awarded him the Order of Honor after winning the title).

But it looks like you can add Pachulia to the insanely long list of guys out for the European championships. Pachulia has suffered an ankle injury, and while it’s not serious enough to slow him in Golden State’s training camp in a month, it could be keeping off the Georgian team for the tournament, according to his coach.

A final decision will come over the weekend.

Here’s a partial list of the players missing this EuroBasket: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari, Enes Kanter, Marcin Gortat Ersan Ilyasova, Omar Asik, Andrea Bargnani, Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Mirotic, and Sergio Llull. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ll still be watching, but some of the drama has been sucked out of the event.

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-

DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, six All-Stars to play in NBA Africa Game

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NEW YORK (AP) — DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans, Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks will play for Team World in the NBA Africa Game.

Dirk Nowitzki and Kemba Walker had already been chosen as captains for Team World. The squad includes Portland’s CJ McCollum, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Boston’s Jaylen Brown, Denver’s Wilson Chandler, New York’s Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa, who most recently played with Phoenix.

The rosters were announced Thursday for the second game featuring players born in Africa and second-generation African players against a team from the rest of the world. It will be played Aug. 5 in Johannesburg.

Team Africa, captained by Luol Deng and Thabo Sefolosha, will be rounded out by Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder, Orlando’s Bismack Biyombo, Houston’s Clint Capela, Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng, Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, Luc Mbah a Moute, most recently with the Clippers, Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay and Dallas’ Salah Mejri. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, from Cameroon, is on the roster but won’t play because he is recovering from injury.

The game will be played in support of UNICEF, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and SOS Children’s Villages South Africa.

Report: Pacers signing-and-trading C.J. Miles to Raptors for Cory Joseph

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The Raptors just shed an overpaid, too-often injured wing in DeMarre Carroll.

Now, they’re getting a cheaper, more effective replacement in C.J. Miles.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

At that price, Miles would have fit into the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Though using that exception would have hard-capped Toronto, so will receiving someone in a sign-and-trade.

So, why deal Cory Joseph here instead of signing Miles outright?

Perhaps, the Raptors plan to use the mid-level exception on someone else. The hard cap will limit their ability to use the whole exception. Precisely how much they can spend depends on Kyle Lowry‘s and Serge Ibaka‘s contract structures. But there’s still flexibility for Toronto to add another productive player.

On one hand, I’m somewhat skeptical the Raptors will pay to add another player, because they could easily go the other way and dodge the luxury tax altogether. On the other hand, again, trading Joseph for only Miles seems illogical if not preserving the mid-level exception for someone else.

Joseph is a solid player who will compete with recently signed Darren Collison for minutes at point guard in Indiana. The Pacers refuse to tank, though acquiring the 25-year-old Joseph’s Bird Rights – he likely opts out next summer – could prove valuable long-term.

At a $7.63 million salary, Joseph was probably more of a luxury than Toronto could afford. Delon Wright was waiting in the wings, and he’ll ascend into the rotation as Lowry’s backup.

But Joseph is a relatively young high-end backup on a reasonable contract. I’d think the Raptors could have gotten some return, at least a second-rounder, by trading him somewhere. Again, the Raptors had the means to sign Miles outright rather than trading with Indiana. Maybe the Pacers are sending Toronto an asset that hasn’t yet been reported.

Miles will help the Raptors, especially because they had Wright ready to assume Joseph’s role (and Fred VanVleet ready to assume Wright’s as third point guard). Instead of relying on a smallish wing combination of DeMar DeRozan and Norman Powell, Toronto can start Miles with DeRozan. Like Carroll, Miles can also play some small-ball four.

This deal probably won’t become official until Toronto completes its trade with the Nets, which can’t happen until the Wizards pass Otto Porter on his physical and complete matching his offer sheet.