NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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2010-11 record: 55-27

Head Coach: Scott Brooks, who his players really like.

Significant Departures: Robert Vaden?

Significant Additions: Reggie Jackson, a personal sleeper favorite in the draft at PBT.

Best-Case Scenario: The slimmed-down Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are one of the best defensive frontcourts in the league.  Russell Westbrook continues to be one of the league’s most most explosive and productive point guards while improving his shot selection and becoming a more efficient player. Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant, but with better handles. James Harden takes his game to another level, the Thunder play all four quarters in the playoffs, and the franchise wins the first championship in its history.

Yes, they are thinking title. They should be.

More likely Scenario: Some, but not all, of the above things happen, and the Thunder come close to a championship, but don’t quite make it past either the Lakers or the Mavericks (or maybe the Heat or the Bulls), but still have perhaps the brightest future in the NBA to look forward to.

Prediction: 48-55 wins

Report: Raptors motivated to make salary-shedding trade

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Trading for Kawhi Leonard created multiple opportunities for the Raptors. Upgrading from DeMar DeRozan on the wing gives them a better chance of winning a title this season. If that doesn’t work, they’re better positioned to pivot into rebuilding with DeRozan’s contract cleared.

Of course, the deal also carried significant risks and costs. Leonard missed nearly all of last season with injury, and he can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Toronto also had to surrender Jakob Poeltl and a future draft pick.

But the swap of DeRozan and Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green carried another, underdiscussed, cost: It increased the Raptors’ payroll next season.

As a result of the trade, the Raptors are in line to spend an extra $9,821,660 – $2,426,772 in salary, $7,394,888 in luxury tax.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The Raptors are on track to pay $34,504,486 in luxury tax. That might seem reasonable for a championship contender, especially on a one-year window, though I’m not the one paying for it. Toronto hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2004.

How much is ownership willing to spend this season?

The Raptors packaged a first-rounder and a second-rounder to dump DeMarre Carroll and avoid the tax last season. I’d be surprised if the Raptors completely avoid the tax this year, but they have until the final day of the regular season.

Jonas Valanciunas (two years and $34,157,302 remaining) and Norman Powell (four years and $41,965,056 remaining) are the prime candidates to get moved. Both can play, but they might be luxuries Toronto isn’t willing to afford. Valanciunas looks like a Nick Nurse favorite, but the Raptors can play Serge Ibaka at center. Powell is just 25, but Toronto built a strong bench last year with him mostly out of the rotation.

I suspect, if they could just give away Valanciunas or Powell, the Raptors would have already.

The question becomes: How much of a sweetener would Toronto include to unload either player? The question is especially complicated, because both Valanciunas and Powell can help on the court. They’re overpaid, not deadweight.

The Raptors will spend the next season trying to impress Leonard into re-signing. As they handle upcoming costs, they ought to keep sight of that opportunity. Nobody wants to play for a team that won’t spend what it takes to win.

Former Kings selection Georgios Papagiannis leaves NBA historically quickly for lottery pick

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Even if he were talking about hot yoga, then-Kings star DeMarcus Cousins perfectly captured the feeling of Sacramento picking Georgios Papagiannis No. 13 in the 2016 draft: “Lord give me the strength.”

Ranked No. 46 on Chad Ford’s board – which attempted to show league-wide consensus – Papagiannis was an old-school plodding center. He flashed interior skills during his limited playing time with Panathinaikos in Greece, but athleticism was a major concern. He was the type of player teams learned over the previous two decades not to fall for.

While an NBA team picking someone so high should be a positive indicator, it did little for Papagiannis. The Kings’ draft record had been miserable under owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac. They didn’t get the benefit of the doubt (though their draft-night trade with the Suns that landed the No. 13 pick used on Papagiannis turned out well).

Every concern about Papagiannis and Sacramento proved justified.

The Kings waived Papagiannis during his second season – absurdly quick for any first-rounder, let alone a lottery pick. His agent blamed the team. Nobody came out looking good.

Papagiannis signed with the Trail Blazers, though he played only one game for them. Portland waived him earlier this summer.

Now, Papagiannis will return Panathinaikos on a five-year contract, the Greek team announced. Will this conclude the 21-year-old’s NBA career? It seems more likely than not.

If so, it will be one of the shortest ever for a lottery pick.

Papagiannis’ 477 career minutes are the sixth-fewest ever by a lottery pick, excluding 2017 and 2018 picks, who haven’t had time to play more.

Fran Vazquez (No. 11 pick in 2005 by Magic) continued playing overseas and never signed in the NBA. Len Bias (No. 2 pick in 1986 by Celtics) tragically died of a cocaine overdose after the draft.

Among lottery picks who actually made the league, only Aleksandar Radojevic (No. 12 pick 1999 by Raptors), Yaroslav Korolev (No. 12 pick in 2005 by Clippers) and Mouhamed Sene (No. 10 pick in 2006 by SuperSonics) played less than Papagiannis.

Here are the fewest minutes played by lottery picks between 1985, when the NBA instituted the lottery, and 2016:

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Papagiannis could still drop down the list.

After all, Radojevic left the NBA after two seasons, spent three years in Europe then somehow returned stateside to play 12 games for the Jazz. That NBA comeback seemed unlikely as he shuffled between the Raptors, Nuggets and Bucks while playing only three games (all with Toronto).

Nothing precludes Papagiannis from returning to the NBA, even if he must complete his entire Greek contract first.

But just because one unlikely thing happened before, I wouldn’t bet on another happening with Papagiannis.

Isaiah Thomas to Danny Ainge: ‘If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back’ to Celtics

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Isaiah Thomas had a rough year.

The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers. He missed most of the season with a hip injury. In between, he played destructively bad for the Cavs and Lakers and got run out of Cleveland, in part, for making waves in the locker room. Free agency was especially cruel, Thomas’ Brinks-truck dreams ending in a minimum salary from the Nuggets – a historically low figure for someone who finished top-five in MVP voting just two seasons prior.

On a bright note: Thomas ended his feud with Celtics president Danny Ainge. In fact, those two spoke during Thomas’ free agency.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: “If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back.”

Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart‘s restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets’ offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.

“S—, I’d have gone back,” Thomas says. “I don’t hold grudges.”

Thomas played his best basketball in Boston. Brad Stevens empowered Thomas as a go-to offensive player and successfully hid him on defense. I understand the appeal of going back.

But that Thomas could never return to those Celtics. He’s older, and his hip injury might have sapped his athleticism. Boston acquired Kyrie Irving, and Terry Rozier broke out. Marcus Smart remains.

A reunion would have likely ended in disappointment.

Instead, Thomas will try to prove himself in Denver, backing up Jamal Murray. Thomas is aware of his standing, and his interview is both endearing and sympathetic. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and carries a chip on his shoulder – the reason so many of us are drawn to him. And he’s keenly aware that, in a league where so many players are paid based on past performance, he’s judged by a hip injury teams believe will hinder him going forward.

Thomas, as always, seems driven to prove himself. And maybe he will. Returning to a reserve role isn’t glamorous, but there’s an opportunity with the Nuggets.

But I also fear, no matter how well Thomas plays next season, teams will be apprehensive of a 30-year-old 5-foot-9 point guard with a history of hip problems in 2019 free agency. He might be stuck in a no-win situation and just can’t get his big payday.

Especially after this interview, though, I’m excited to watch him try.

Report: Carmelo Anthony to sign minimum contract with Rockets

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Carmelo Anthony signing with the Rockets has been a near-certainty for a while.

The final steps – the Thunder trading him to the Hawks, Atlanta waiving him, Anthony clearing waivers – are close enough that specifics are emerging.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Carmelo Anthony is planning to sign with the Houston Rockets upon clearing waivers in coming days, according to two people with knowledge of his plans.

He is expected to receive a one-year deal from the Rockets at the league’s veteran minimum salary

The Rockets have the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception available, but clearly wary of an expensive payroll, they’ll get Anthony for much less.

Anthony will count just $1,512,601 toward the cap and luxury tax. He’ll pocket pocket an extra $1,871,635 – in addition to the $27,928,140 paid by the Hawks. Not a bad summer for him, as he’ll get all his money plus a little more and get to join his desire team.

For the Rockets? It’s a classic tale. They let more expensive players – Trevor Ariza ($15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute ($4,320,500 from Clippers) – leave and settled for minimum-salary players: James Ennis and Anthony.

Ennis fits well in Houston, but he lacks the talent of the departing players (who also fit well). Anthony brings name recognition, but unless he works to complement James Harden and Chris Paula huge question mark – this won’t go well. That’s why he’s leaving Oklahoma City, and there are many reasons to be skeptical he’ll acquit himself better with the Rockets.

You get what you pay for.