Thunder enter summer with one big goal: Get healthy

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It’s this simple: If Russell Westbrook were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder would be on their way to the NBA Finals.

Instead, there was disappintment as they fell in the second round to a very good Memphis Grizzlies team 4-1. This was not some blowout, Memphis was just +18 for the entire series. No game was decided by more than six points.

You don’t think a healthy Russell Westbrook changes that outcome?

Which is why, while there are things the Thunder need to deal with this summer on the roster, the only thing that really matters is getting healthy. Specifically, getting Russell Westbrook healthy and close to his old self.

Do that and the Thunder are title contenders again. This team won 60 games in the regular season and had the best margin of victory in the league. Healthy they are just fine.

There was a lot of “see, the Thunder could have used James Harden” talk during the playoffs. That talk needs to stop. For one, the Harden ship has sailed, move on. Second, they didn’t need him — they needed Westbrook. You saw it against Memphis — the Grizzlies could load up and make life difficult for Kevin Durant, take away his comfort zone, and the Thunder didn’t have a good second scoring option. Westbrook solves that problem in a big way. Whatever you think of the Harden trade it’s this simple: Without Westbrook the Thunder were not winning a title, regardless of the other moves.

So get healthy this summer, RW.

But there are a couple things the Thunder need to address this off-season.

First is Kevin Martin, who is an unrestricted free agent. He was a good fit with OKC, averaging 14 points a game and shooting better than 42 percent from three. He’s not Harden in terms playmaking but he spaces the floor as a scorer and provides value for them.

The question is how much are you willing to pay for that value. Martin made $12.4 million last season and a pay cut is coming, but how much? And how much are the Thunder willing to pay — they have $67 million on the books already for next season (because Serge Ibaka’s extension kicks in), which has them flirting with the luxury tax line (likely to be $72 million next season). How much is Martin worth? Around $8-9 million for a few years?

One way to clear up some cap space would be to amnesty Kendrick Perkins, who is set to make just shy of $9 million next season. The fans in OKC want this, and the deal helps them on paper, but remember that when you amnesty a player you still have to pay him, he just comes off the official books. If your the Knicks or Lakers, that’s a sunk cost you can ignore, but for the Thunder that is still nearly $19 million over a couple years they have to pay whether Perkins plays in OKC or not. Whatever they do the Thunder need to get another solid big man defender this summer — Perkins was a liability at both ends in the playoffs, especially against the Grizzlies. He had a negative PER of -0.7 for the postseason, which is head-scratchingly bad. The Thunder need to consider a change next to  Ibaka up front.

The Thunder could use some depth, everyone could use more shooters and athletes and defenders. But the pieces are pretty much there with the Thunder. They have good role players — Reggie Jackson is a solid backup point guard, Thabo Sefolosha can defend on the wing, Nick Collison gives you solid minutes off the bench as a center. There are good players who can develop such as Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb.

This is a well-constructed roster. When healthy. That’s all they really need.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK (AP) — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

 

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.

Cavaliers: Ante Zizic out indefinitely with vestibular condition

Ante Zizic
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Kyrie Irving left the Celtics for the Nets after two seasons. The Cavaliers flipped Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder their first season in Cleveland.

The last player remaining with his team from that monumental-looking Cavs-Celtics trade, Ante Zizic might not be long for Cleveland, either.

In fact, it’s unclear whether he’ll play again for the Cavs.

Cavaliers release:

Center Ante Zizic, who has missed the team’s last five games after being diagnosed with a vestibular condition, will be OUT indefinitely. After experiencing symptoms of nausea and dizziness, it was determined by the Cavaliers medical team that Zizic requires a period of vestibular rehabilitation to evaluate those symptoms further. His return to basketball activities will be updated as appropriate.

“Indefinitely” always sounds scary. That’s especially so with an uncommon basketball medical update.

If the Cavaliers unload veterans like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love before the trade deadline, Zizic could be in line for more playing time down the stretch. He could use a showcase entering unrestricted free agency this summer.

Hopefully, he’s healthy enough to be up for it.