What the Thunder should do when the lockout ends

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Oklahoma City is out latest stop on our “what your team needs to do when the lockout ends” tour. To see the teams already covered (we’re working our way through the Western Conference right now) click here.

Last season in Oklahoma City: We saw growth. The young Thunder team took the steps forward we all expected (there were some fools who expected a massive leap to the title, but teams grow more slowly than that). They won 55 games, up from 50. They reached the Western Conference finals for the first time (after being knocked out in the first round the year before). They traded for Kendrick Perkins, which was a great move (Dallas was just a bad matchup). OKC made strides, the season was what it should have been.

Since we last saw the Thunder: They made a sweet move in the draft, promising early to Reggie Jackson, the point guard out of Boston College. A lot of teams loved him as a sleeper, but with the early promise he stopped working out for teams and fell all the way to the Thunder at No. 24. That may mean Eric Maynor is on his way out.

Aside that, the roster remains stable.

When the lockout ends, the Thunder need to… Lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal, then pray for more growth from a young team, growth that could have them taking the next step or two. Well, there are a couple more things, but those are the big ones.

When the lockout ends GM Sam Presti should show up on the doorstep of Russell Westbrook and offer him whatever the new max extension to his rookie deal will be — they have to keep this guy. He is part of the core, of the future in OKC. He is one of the best young point guards in the game – he can play at both ends of the floor, gives you 21.9 points per game and 8.2 assists (with a better than 2-1 turnover ratio). And he will be just 23 next season — his game is still maturing.

Westbrook took a lot of heat during the playoffs for taking shots away from and not playing well with Durant. There was a little truth to that, although we saw flashes of brilliance, too (like Game 7 against Memphis). There were ludicrous calls to trade him because he didn’t defer enough to the league’s leading scorer. Royce Young of the brilliant Daily Thunder blog has words for you if you think Westbrook and Durant need to start playing well together.

They already do.  They didn’t win 55 games and come within two fourth quarters of the NBA Finals by playing bad together. Do they need to improve? Definitely. Good thing they’re both just 22 years old.

There’s not a lot else for the Thunder to do, their roster is pretty set. Mr. pro-am. er, Kevin Durant got his extension last summer. Perkins got an extension (and they will need him going forward, they need him in the middle to rebound and protect the rim with Serge Ibaka). They made a qualifying offer and still need to figure out things with Daequan Cook, but the roster is pretty much set.

Still there are things that need to be done to take the next step, and the Daily Thunder’s Young has ideas.

1) Scott Brooks needs to figure out if James Harden is going to start or not. The Thunder drafted Reggie Jackson to potentially fill Harden’s scoring punch role off the bench and it’s pretty much universally agreed upon that Harden should start over Thabo Sefolosha. But Brooks is stubborn and likes to stick with what works, so it’ll be a decision.

And 2), Get Perk healthy. Perkins himself said he was only about 60 percent during the playoffs. He was overweight, out of shape and his knees were a little heavy on him. He’s committed to a pretty tough offseason conditioning plan — one that may or may not include getting in bar fights — and he’s said he wants to get back down to a playing weight of around 250. This is the Perk that Oklahoma City is hoping for. Not the one that lumbered around in the postseason like he was Greg Oden’s overweight brother.

Bottom line is that the Thunder don’t need to do much when the lockout ends — they will come in as more experienced title contenders next season. If the lockout drags on and the 2012 season looks like the 1999 season — 50 games crammed into too few days and then the playoffs — young and talented teams where their leg will bounce back quickly have a big advantage. And that would be the Thunder.

Their time is coming soon, fans just need to be a little more patient.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.