Victor Oladipo

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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

Paul George trade just the start of a pathetic Pacers offseason

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The Pacers would have been better next season if they just kept Paul George.

They also might have been better in 2019-20.

Indiana got a head start on 2018-19 and little else this offseason.

George said he planned to leave in 2018 free agency, so dealing him was certainly reasonable. But for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis? That paltry return sent shockwaves beyond just scorned Cleveland.

It’ll be tough for Oladipo to provide surplus value as he makes $84 million over the next four years. Sabonis is as pedestrian as a second-year lottery pick can get.

The Pacers also lost Jeff Teague and C.J. Miles in free agency and waived – and stretched! (more on that later) – Monta Ellis, three players who started in the playoffs last season. Their replacements: Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph.

Bogdanovic ($1.5 million of $10.5 million) and Collison ($2 million of $10 million) have small guarantees for 2018-19. So does returning center Al Jefferson ($4 million of $10 million). Essentially, Indiana will keep those players if they have value at those salaries or clear cap space otherwise.

Though Miles, essentially acquired for free in a trade with the Raptors, has a $7,945,000 player option for 2018-19, the Pacers will have his Bird Rights.

This is shaping up to be a 30-something-win team, where the “something” will determine whether Indiana sneaks into the playoffs in a down Eastern Conference or picks in the low lottery. Though not stuck in that position with several long-term contracts, it’s still a lousy place to be even for a season or two.

The Pacers might have felt George’s declared plan to depart sent them down this path, but it didn’t have to.

If they kept George, one of two things would have happened:

  • He’d re-sign. Despite his insistence that he was leaving, he could have always reversed course. If he made an All-NBA team this season, he would have been eligible for a super-max contract. Indiana could have dared him to turn that down.
  • He’d leave. The Pacers probably still would have been in better long-term shape than they are now. Though I’m high on Myles Turner, they probably could have tanked around him in his fourth year and launched a proper rebuild.

Either way, Indiana would have been better in the interim. The Pacers wouldn’t have been postseason locks with George this season, but they would have been more likely than this rag-tag bunch. They also could have cut bait on George and dealt him before the trade deadline – likely for more than they got this summer.

Indiana just doesn’t want to slip too far, though. That’ll pay off next summer, when the Pacers have Oladipo and Sabonis locked up, team control over Bogdanovic and Collison in unguaranteed salaries and Bird Rights for Joseph if he opts out.

Starting after the lopsided George trade, this wasn’t bad execution of the plan. It’s just a bad plan.

Striving for mediocrity with established veterans just inhibits meaningful growth. That’s especially evident with stretching Ellis, who will count $2,245,400 against the cap through 2022.

The Pacers cleared nearly $9 million in cap space with the move, but their guaranteed salaries still land about $7.5 million below the salary cap, and the $4,328,000 room exception remains unused. Though the cap space and room exception can’t be combined, the space created by stretching Ellis didn’t go to great use. If Indiana offered Bogdanovic and/or Collison just $1 million or so less, they wouldn’t have signed? It would have been better to play hardball with those free agents and lose one than to stretch Ellis.

Indiana isn’t going anywhere significant this season, anyway. The right move was paying Ellis his entire $11,227,000 this season and getting it over with.

The Pacers aren’t completely bereft of young talent. Turner, a stretch center with impressive defensive potential, is now their franchise player. Oladipo is just 25. Draft picks T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) are all fine.

But Indiana lost George, its most valuable asset, without getting a single draft pick or high-end young player. Now, the Pacers are just headed toward a couple uninspiring years before inevitably undergoing the rebuild they could have gotten a head start on this summer or next.

Offseason grade: F

Pacers’ Victor Oladipo can sing, drops impressive new R&B single

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Victor Oladipo can sing. We’ve heard it before, in talent shows and other snippets.

Now, he has his own single, a remake of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You.”

And it’s impressive.

Oladipo talked about his singing with Complex magazine last year.

“Ain’t too many NBA players who are actually really good at singing,” he said at the time. “There’s a lot of rappers, but not too many singers. I think it could be something special, so maybe one day.”

This season Oladipo will be part of a fresh — and likely challenging — reboot in Indiana. He may feel more like singing the blues as the season wears on. But for how, he’s laying it down. The guy has a voice.

Kevin Durant: Pacers just gave away Paul George

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Dan Gilbert said the Pacers “could have done better” in the Paul George trade, which brought Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana.

The Cavaliers owner isn’t the only one speaking out about the Pacers’ paltry return from the Thunder.

Warriors star Kevin Durant, via Bill Simmons of The Ringer:

I think Paul George is so good. A lot of people disrespect him. Because I play against him and I respect my position.

So that was shocking because Indiana just gave him away. And I ain’t think OKC would even think about giving up anything to trade for him. I didn’t think they would do it, but that was a ballsy move.

I appreciate Durant sharing his opinion, which he has become eager to do. He’s also right.

Oladipo doesn’t carry much surplus value, if any, while owed $21 million each of the next four seasons. Sabonis is a middling prospect.

It’s just surprising to see Durant publicly critique another team like this. It’s especially surprising to see him implicitly disparage Oladipo, who – like Durant – grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

But Durant will get plenty of leeway from me – especially because he’s right.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.