Five Things We Learned in NBA Thursday: Oklahoma City may be best in West now

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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while wondering why you get the munchies while high

1) Oklahoma City should now be the favorite to win the West. The lowest seed to win the NBA title was the Houston Rockets as the six seed (the only eight seed to make the NBA Finals was the 1999 Knicks). The Thunder may rewrite that history. Oklahoma City was a potential contender before Thursday — healthy again this was the same team that made the conference finals last season and, once Serge Ibaka returned, gave San Antonio all it could handle. But they won the trade deadline Thursday adding Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, and Steve Novak. They now have a bench they can trust in the playoffs, something they have lacked since James Harden left. If you had any question how good the Thunder are you could see it Thursday night as they jumped on a good Dallas team early and never let up. The one concern with OKC is health — Kevin Durant’s surgically-repaired foot was clearly bothering him Thursday night. The West remains loaded and to count out Golden State, Memphis, San Antonio, or a few other teams is a mistake. But right now, I’d bet on OKC.

2) Tim Duncan can still dunk. Watch out Zach LaVine, the Big Fundamental is coming for you. First he did this on DeAndre Jordan (more on him later):

Then later in the game Duncan (who had 30 points on 12-of-14 shooting) did this:

3) Sam Hinkie likes to blow things up. I’ve been in the corner of the Sixers’ GM through all of this rebuild that has become the poster child for tanking — for the Sixers to become elite the core needs to be built through the draft. I’ve said we need to wait until 2018 to truly judge this plan. And I still believe those things — but I don’t get today’s moves. These Sixers were starting to develop an identity. They were playing good defense, and while the offense lacked shooting you could envision them becoming dangerous with Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and some more picks coming over the next couple years. So Hinkie blew it up. I could live with trading Michael Carter-Williams for the Lakers first round pick that belonged to the Suns (top five protected this year, top three next year; the Lakers stink that should be a very high pick). But I don’t get trading K.J. McDaniels just because they have to pay him some this summer — now the Sixers are going to pay JaVale McGee instead, because they took him on to get a pick. At some point all the assets need to become players and you started to see that in Philly, but the team was blown up again. It’s time to build something. But I’ll reserve total judgement for a few more years.

4) Portland quietly had a big day Thursday. With the frenzy of trades at the deadline there was a lot of buzz about how the Thunder got better, how the Sixers got worse, and what the Suns were doing (Brett Pollakoff of PBT liked their moves, I’m not a fan). Lost in all that — Portland had a fantastic trade deadline. They are a team with questions at the three and questions about depth, they went out and added Arron Afflalo from the Nuggets. This is a fantastic fit, a sixth man who can knock down the three, is a solid defender and can create his own shot on the wing playing the two or three. Portland’s starting five — Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez — outscores opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, but when the team goes to the bench things go sideways. Afflalo helps change that. Portland just got a lot better.

5) Blake who? DeAndre Jordan finding offensive game at right time. That’s three wins in a row for the Clippers without Blake Griffin, this time Jordan put up 26 points on 8-of-11 shooting plus he had 18 rebounds. He was a force inside from the very start and was the focal point all night because Gregg Popovich went to the “hack-the-DJ” strategy. It worked in the first half when Jordan was 4-of-14 from the line, then in the second half he was 6-of-14 but the Clippers did not surrender their lead. With the Dallas loss to OKC, the Clippers are now the five seed in the West, and while things will change before the end of the season so far they are not slipping down the ladder without Griffin. And DJ is the main reason.

Plus, he did this.

Kevin Garnett says first choice for 2007 trade was Kobe Bryant and Lakers

Celtics great Kevin Garnett and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant
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Kevin Garnett didn’t have a no-trade clause when the Timberwolves were shopping him in 2007. But because he could either sign an extension with his new team or opt out in 2008, Garnett had massive leverage over where he went. Effectively, he could swing whether it was worth a team’s while to deal for him.

Four primary suitors emerged: Celtics, Lakers, Suns and Warriors.

Garnett’s initial top choice? Joining Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.

Garnett on All The Smoke:

I’m just being honest with everybody. I wanted to link with Kobe.

Kobe and I had a different connect. When Kobe-Shaq went on their little thing, a lot of people went with Shaq. A lot of people didn’t even f— with Kob. You know, Kob, whatever. One of the very few to just stay with him. I was a neutral guy, anyway. I show everybody love.

I tried to link with him, and I couldn’t get him on the line.

Garnett was working out at the time with Tyronn Lue, who was close with Bryant and encouraged Garnett to call back. Garnett did, but Bryant still didn’t return the call.

This only reinforces the notation that Bryant cost the Lakers stars. As singularly great as he was, Bryant just wasn’t about recruiting.

Bryant and Garnett would have been a fascinating pairing. They definitely had the talent to compete. Maybe the two notoriously intense stars would have meshed over a shared approach. Or maybe they would’ve driven each other crazy, a lack of balance between them.

The Lakers even had a trade framework in place involving Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.

But Bryant’s unavailability created an opening for Boston.

Garnett:

Danny Ainge flew in, and he just got right to it and showed the vision, the vision he was seeing. You ever have somebody talk to you and as they’re talking to you, you can see what they’re seeing, so much that you’re not even looking at them no more but you see it? That’s how he was painting it. And he was a Picasso. And this is Danny Ainge’s greatness, in him being able to lure you in, his charming ass. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t even know he was finessing me.

Garnett told the Celtics to keep Rajon Rondo, who was apparently initially part of the package going to Minnesota. They did, and it worked out extremely well. Boston won the 2008 title – over Bryant’s Lakers. (The Lakers won the next two championships, including over the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals.)

What about Phoenix, which – featuring Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion – was the best of the four teams at the time?

Garnett:

I actually called Steve Nash just as a courtesy, and I guess the call he hit me back with was, “Yo, if you come down here, we need you to take a major pay cut.” And I was like, “OK, if I come down there, I’m playing with you and Amar’e right?” He’s like, “Yeah, I think they’re going to give Amar’e up for you and Shawn.” And I said, “So, who is it going to be? Just me and you?”

As for Golden State, which – featuring All The Smoke hosts Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes – had just pulled a historic upset of the top-seeded Mavericks:

I was seeing how y’all was, but I needed a superstar.

Report: John Paxson to remain in power with Bulls

Bulls executive John Paxson
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The Bulls are reportedly looking for a general manager to replace Gar Forman.

But the other half of GarPax – Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson – apparently isn’t going anywhere. And of course neither is president/CEO Michael Reinsdorf, son of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that there could be multiple people hired, as the power structure is still being determined.

Paxson and Reinsdorf are still running the show, with Paxson still considered to have a valuable seat at the table no matter what title they come up for him.

Even if it appears that Paxson will be taking a background approach, the source said don’t believe it. The Reinsdorfs still have 100 percent faith in him leading the direction of this organization.

Evaluating individual members of a front office can be extremely difficult from the outside.

But Paxson didn’t cover himself in glory when he effectively declared the Bulls, after going 27-55 in 2017-18, were done tanking. Chicago went 22-60 last season and is 19-36 this season.

The Bulls need an honest assessment of where they are. They’re not good and probably not that close to being good. They have a few interesting young players – Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. But even with a high pick in this year’s draft, Chicago’s young core isn’t strong enough to assume it will rise into a quality team.

Though Paxson has supported Jim Boylen, the Bulls could probably use a new coach.

More importantly, they must understand that remaining at the bottom and securing more high picks is their best path forward. Drafting well would accelerate the process, but drafting is hard. Sometimes, you need more bites at the apple.

Of course, that will require a patience Chicago has rarely shown.

Knicks’ former player, G-League GM Allan Houston could get promotion

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There was a time when former Knicks All-Star player Allan Houston was seen as the rising front office star of the team. Since then, he has risen to assistant GM (before the Phil Jackson era), survived multiple management changes, and bounced around to different roles, most recently as the GM of the G-League Westchester Knicks.

Now he could be seeing a promotion under soon-to-arrive team president Leon Rose, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

As Leon Rose prepares for his imminent takeover, Garden constant Allan Houston has emerged as a candidate for a front office promotion, a league source told the Daily News…

According to a source, Craig Robinson, the current Knicks’ vice president of player development, has already had his responsibilities cut. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s brother, was hired by his Princeton buddy Steve Mills to oversee a comprehensive player development initiative…

The future of GM Scott Perry is unknown but it’s worth noting he has a strong relationship with Rose’s confidante, William Wesley.

Nobody knows exactly what the Knicks front office will look like after Rose officially takes the reins (he is still finishing up commitments to his CAA clients before coming over). We know William “World Wide Wes” Wesley will not have a role with the team, staying with CAA, but he will likely still have Rose’s ear. There will be a host of changes.

A deep house cleaning is in order in New York as the Knicks need to change their culture, not just their players. There is a lot of work to be done to develop players and build a foundation that will attract star players — right now the Knicks are not that kind of draw.  Houston apparently is going to get a chance to be part of whatever is next.

Steve Kerr says Stephen Curry will play this season once healthy

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“What’s the point? The Warriors have 12 wins, the worst record in the NBA, and are not sniffing the playoffs this season, so why bring Stephen Curry back this season at all? Why risk the injury? Why not tank?”

Steve Kerr has no use for that attitude.

Curry started practicing with the Warriors again on Wednesday. He will be re-evaluated the first week of March and could return to play soon after — and Kerr wants that. He wants Andrew Wiggins to get used to playing with Curry. Kerr defended the idea at Warriors practice on Wednesday (quotes via Monte Poole at NBC Sports Bay Area).

“It’s important for Steph and Andrew to get to know each other and to play together,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday night after practice at Chase Center. “It’s important for Steph to play without all of the guys we’ve lost who are not going to be back next year: Kevin (Durant) and Andre (Iguodala) and Shaun (Livingston). Steph in many ways has depended on those guys as sort of a giant security blanket.

“For a guy who is so skilled and talented, this has still been a team effort over the years. And he’s been blessed with some of the smartest players and most talented players in the league…

“He’s perfectly healthy. If the point is he might get hurt, what’s the point of ever playing anybody? I guess the argument is we’re not making the playoffs. So, are we not trying to entertain our fans?”

Kerr wants to build some familiarity and some momentum heading into next season. They might win a few more games, but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not going to hurt the Warriors in terms of position. Beyond that, this is a down draft — in our podcast last week, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons — so Warriors fans may want to temper expectations about how much help this draft can provide.

Curry wants to play, he’s healthy, he should play. Load management has a role in the league, but this is not it.