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Thunder secured Paul George, surprisingly kept spending

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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.

The Thunder clearly made headway with Paul George throughout last season.

But then signs of disaster struck internally and externally.

The Jazz ran through Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoff, exposing all the Thunder’s liabilities. It also became increasingly apparent LeBron James would choose the Lakers.

The Lakers with George would have been better than the Thunder with him, and he could have fulfilled his longstanding desire to play for his hometown team. Even if his Los Angeles interest was overstated or he wasn’t fond of joining LeBron, George had numerous other options. The 76ers and Jazz were already better than Oklahoma City. George would have vaulted either team even further ahead.

On the other hand, the Thunder looked like they might take a step back even if they re-signed George. Though Andre Roberson getting healthy would help, Oklahoma City’s payroll was getting quite high. Most small-market teams would shed salary, either by trading helpful contributors or attaching draft picks as sweeteners to unload overpaid players.

Yet, just when the walls of Thunder’s yearlong recruitment of George appeared to be caving in, George re-signed – even locking in for three years (with a fourth-year player option on his max contract). Keeping George – who likely never would have even considered Oklahoma City in free agency if he spent last season elsewhere – is a coup.

We might never know why George agreed so quickly to re-sign, not even meeting with the Lakers. Maybe he just became so attached to Russell Westbrook, George wasn’t leaving under any circumstances. But perhaps the Thunder sold him on their ambitiously expensive plan to upgrade the roster.

Oklahoma City is on pace to pay more than $93 million in luxury tax next season, which would be a record. Perhaps, the Thunder will stretch Kyle Singler. That could drop them below the $90 million-plus the Nets paid in luxury tax in 2014. But Oklahoma City is in the same range despite not nearing Brooklyn in market size.

This is the same Thunder franchise still reeling from the perception it traded James Harden over luxury-tax concerns. What a way to change a narrative.

Oklahoma City re-signed Jerami Grant to a three-year, $27,346,153 deal. That’s an expensive outlay, especially considering the Thunder are just entering the repeater luxury tax and have multiple veterans on expensive long-term deals. They’re facing a big tax bill for years to come.

Smaller moves also prove quite costly in this environment. Oklahoma City picked three players in the second round – Hamidou Diallo (No. 45), Devon Hall (No. 53) and Kevin Hervey (No. 57) – but signed only Diallo. Rostering second-round picks can save teams in luxury tax, as players signed as draft picks for less than the second-year minimum count less toward the tax than minimum free agents. But Hall will play overseas next season, and Hervey remains unsigned. Instead, Oklahoma City signed Raymond Felton and Nerlens Noel for the minimum (Noel’s cost landing even higher because he received a player option). If they signed Hall and Hervey instead of Felton and Noel, the Thunder would have saved nearly $9 million next season.

Even moves described as cost-cutting weren’t. Once the Thunder decided to part with Carmelo Anthony, stretching him became the baseline. That would have cost $9,309,380 (minus potential set-offs) each of the next three seasons. Instead, Oklahoma City traded him for Dennis Schroder, who has a $15.5 million salary for each of the next three seasons. Unlike the cap hit for a waived Anthony, the Thunder could always move Schroder later to save money. But this trade was not a salary dump.

In the Anthony trade, the Thunder also landed Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, a worthwhile wing flier. But Oklahoma City surrendered a lottery-protected 2022 first-rounder that becomes two second-rounders if the Thunder make the playoffs that year. That’s surprisingly high price for Schroder, who many viewed as negative salary.

The only creative penny-pinching Oklahoma City did was trading for Abdel Nader, who’ll count less toward the luxury tax than a free agent because he signed as a drafted player with the Celtics.

Small picture:

  • I’m not sure Grant is worth his cost. He’s a quality defender in a switching scheme, and using him at center provides a style Oklahoma City lacks otherwise. If nothing else, he’s active offensively. But his subpar shooting lowers his ceiling and becomes especially costly in the playoffs.
  • I’m not sure Felton is worth his cost. He was a bargain as a steadying backup point guard, but downgrading him to third string, maybe Oklahoma City would have been better off with a cheaper developmental piece.
  • I’m not sure Noel is worth his cost. He still has plenty of untapped potential, but there are major questions about his work ethic. How much will he play with Adams, Grant and Patrick Patterson all capable at center?
  • I’m not sure Schroder is worth his cost. Even beyond his potential felony charge, basketball questions emerge. He might hit enough spot-up 3s to thrive with Westbrook. He might not. His ability to attack after Westbrook tilts the defense is intriguing. At minimum, he’ll liven up the offense when Westbrook sits. But the idea that his cost is only the difference between his salary and Anthony’s stretch amount ($6,190,620) is limited. Potential trade partners will value Schroder at his full $15.5 million salary.

Big picture:

  • Who cares?

It’s not my money. If Thunder owner Clay Bennett is willing to spend big, that’s great for the team. Kudos to him.

With Westbrook, Anthony and Adams guaranteed huge salaries, Oklahoma City wasn’t going to clear cap room this summer. Re-signing George long-term ensured the Thunder would be capped out as long they kept their core players. So, additional spending doesn’t hinder flexibility in an significant way. It just helps the on-court product.

My only concern is Oklahoma City fails to meet internal expectations and becomes more reluctant to spend in future seasons. I consider the Thunder more likely to lose in the first round than reach the conference finals, more likely to miss the playoffs than reach the NBA Finals.

But those expectations are higher than they would have been if Oklahoma City dodged the luxury tax. Westbrook is a 29-year-old superstar reliant on his athleticism. There is no tomorrow. Every playoff game is its own reward.

If Bennett is demanding a championship for his massive expenditure, he’ll likely be disappointed. Personally, I’m just impressed with a team that’s much better than it could have been on a tight budget.

Offseason grade: A

Chicago interviews Bryan Colangelo, Danny Ferry for top basketball job

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There are job interviews done because the team or business is genuinely interested in hiring that candidate. Then, there are job interviews done more as a courtesy.

Bulls fans are hoping the latest news on the search for a new head of basketball operations falls into the latter category.

Colangelo was forced out in Philadelphia in controversy after his wife was found to have a burner Twitter account that backed her husband and slammed players. Ferry was let go as the head man in Atlanta after reading a scouting report to minority owners of the team that included racist language about Luol Deng. Both are veteran executives but it could be tough to put either in front-facing positions within the Bulls organization.

Sources told NBC Sports that Denver GM Arturas Karnisovas is the clear frontrunner for the job at this point, which echoes what others have reported. He’s a strong fit in Chicago, a franchise that needs the kind of smart drafting and player development program Karnisovas helped develop in Denver. What role John Paxson would play in the new organization — he says he’s willing to step down if requested — and if Jim Boylen would be back as coach have not been decided (but Boylen’s seat is hot).

The Bulls are still going through the hiring process. With league play suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is no timeline pressure to get a deal done quickly.

NBA players’ union tells agents to expect player salary withholding, even some players paying refunds

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Michelle Roberts and other executives from the National Basketball Players Association spent an hour on the phone with agents in a conference call on Tuesday.

What came out of that was not new information, but some clarity for agents, according to reports from Jabari Young at CNBC and Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Agents were told:

• No decision has been made on resuming the season or playoffs.

• There is no drop-dead date that decision has to be made. The NBA continues to wait for the coronavirus pandemic and response to play out, decisions will be based on what happens.

• They went over the pre-draft guidelines sent out by the league.

• Expect some player salary withholding, and for players who got most of their salary up front there could be refunds requested.

It’s the pay portion that most interested agents (and their clients). From Young at CNBC:

In an hour-long call on Tuesday afternoon, executives at the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA)… told agents that any compensation deal constructed by the NBPA and league owners will include refunds on all NBA contracts.

The repayments will hit hardest for players who receive their paychecks on a six-month cycle, who receive more money per pay cycle but don’t get checks during the off-season. (Agents usually prefer 12-month payment plans to protect players from over-spending, and to keep them from struggling once the season ends and paychecks stop rolling in.) It will also hit hard for some players who received advance payments on their contracts. Teams often use advances to lure free agent players to sign deals sooner, at times offering full or partial payment of contracts upfront.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and several other stars get a lot of their money up front. In the case of LeBron and Durant, both of whom are under contract for future seasons with their teams, a deal could be worked out to dock future pay rather than have the player write the team a check. The situation could be different for other players.

Under the current CBA, 10 percent of every player’s check is withheld and put into an escrow account. Then, at the end of the season, when the NBA audits its books, they figure out how much of that withheld money is to be returned to players to meet the CBA-mandated split of Basketball Related Income (the split for both sides can slide between 49 and 51 percent, depending upon if revenues met projections). Some years the players get all of the 10 percent back, some years much less.

What the owners are talking about now is taking a higher percentage of the checks for the escrow accounts, exactly what that percentage would be is under negotiation. From Pompey at the Inquirer:

The agents were told the NBA has yet to do an audit for this season due to the uncertainty involving the remainder of the campaign. As a result, the dollar amount of players’ portion from the league’s revenue sharing has yet to be determined, agents were told. Agents were also informed that next season’s salary cap won’t be determined until after the audit.

None of that is new information, and everything is in flux. The union just wanted to keep agents in the loop.

In the end, NBA players and teams are like the rest of the nation: Everyone is getting hit financially, everyone wants to get back to work, and everyone is waiting to see how the coronavirus pandemic plays out before making the next steps. And that will take time.

NBA decision-makers prepare for a draft unlike any other

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This time of year, members of NBA front offices have their focus split. Half the league is gearing is up for the playoffs, while the other half is beginning offseason preparations. On both sides, a shared deadline is looming: the 2020 NBA Draft is about two-and-a-half months away.

For playoff teams, this means keeping an eye on how your team is playing while gearing up for the Draft Combine, pre-draft workouts, meetings upon meetings and thousands of phone calls and text messages. For the non-playoff teams, they don’t have the postseason as a distraction. It’s all about the draft.

“It’s wild. The trade deadline is crazy because it’s all happening at once. But the months leading up to the draft are like months of complete chaos,” one Western Conference executive, whose team is headed for the playoffs, told NBC Sports. “Teams are talking to you about trades. Agents want daily updates on what you think about their clients. You’re trying to find out who is declaring and who likes who. And in the middle of it, you have people hitting you up about free agency and trades. It’s non-stop.”

This year, everything is taking on a different feel though.

The NBA recently released guidelines to teams on the pre-draft process in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams are limited to four hours of virtual meetings with each prospect. They also can’t meet for more than two hours with a prospect in any given week. And during none of that time can teams ask a player to perform any sort of workout.

“It’s different for sure,” an Eastern Conference executive from a playoff-bound team told NBC Sports. “Fortunately, we push ourselves to have most of our in-person scouting wrapped before the NCAA postseason. We’re at the conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament, but we don’t want our year-long process swayed by a couple of games. It’s just another piece of information for our book.”

It’s gathering that information that has teams worried. You can watch tape and analyze stats, but not being able to see prospects in-person in their own facility has some teams concerned.

“We look for a few things when a guy shows up to see us. First, and most important of all, is the medical. If there are medical red flags, it can take a guy right off our draft board. Now, we have to trust what we get from the agent, and there’s different motivation there,” a lottery team from the Eastern Conference’s general manager said. “Then we, of course, want to see the guy workout. People laugh about going against a chair and shooting in an empty, but it’s our chance to see the guy. And you talk all throughout. We had one guy come in and bomb our shooting drill. He demanded we let him go again. That’s the competitive spirit we want to see.”

The in-person meetings are also a chance to get to know players better. Talent and skill matter, but personality and fit in a team’s culture matter a lot too.

“It’s our chance to see how they are as a person,” a playoff-bound Western Conference execute said. “We’ll get some of that over these video calls, but it’s not the same. We also like to find out who is around the kid. Does he show up with an entourage of 10 people? Who are those people? We had a player come in once with like 15 guys and girls. At first, we were like ‘What the hell?’ But as we talked, we realized it was his family and they were just excited to support him. That’s a great support system.

“We’ve also had guys show up with all these hanger-on’s and you talk to them too. Some of them are fine. Some are people you don’t want around. It’s all part of the process.”

Not being able to meet in person as a staff is also a bit daunting too.

“Normally by now the NCAA Tournament is done. Overseas leagues are wrapping up. Most of our people are at our facility. We’re used to meeting virtually, but it’s now when we start coming together. And some of our older scouts hate the technology stuff. They do their best work in the room. We’re having to drag them into this a little bit more. And thank God for our IT guys. They’re the real heroes of our organization right now!” said an Eastern Conference executive.

One lottery-bound Western Conference executive said this year’s strange process is different, but he’s excited to see it play out.

“No one will like this, but we waste a lot of time during this time of year,” the executive said. “We go to the PIT (Portsmouth Invitational Tournament) every year, but we haven’t gotten a guy from there in years. I’m also not really upset the NCAA tournament got canceled. Every year our owner falls in love with a couple of kids who have a big tournament. Every year we need to talk him down. I’m glad not to have that hassle this year.”

It’s not just owners hitting up general managers.

“Our coach is watching film on guys. He never has time for that,” the GM of an Eastern Conference lottery GM said. “Even when your team is bad, your coach isn’t looking at draft stuff until the season ends. If you make the playoffs, which we usually do, coach doesn’t look until after you get knocked out. Now, he’s hitting us up multiple times a day about guys he likes. It’s good and it’s bad. We like knowing who he thinks fits. But the draft is a 5-to-10-year decision. Our coach today probably isn’t our coach in five years. We can’t just pick the guys he likes.”

It’s not just NBA decision-makers who have mixed feelings on this new process. NBA agents are also struggling a bit.

“It’s really dependent on the player. If he had an awesome season, you might want it to stop there. Leave that as the last impression,” one agent who has as many as 10 prospects in this year’s draft told NBC Sports. “On the other hand, I’ve got some guys who were hoping to use the combine and the workouts to boost their stock. There are guys who don’t jump out at you on tape, but in-person, they’re dynamic. That’s missing now.”

Compounding matters is that this is considered to be a very flat and talent-deficient draft.

“This draft class just isn’t great,” said an executive from one playoff-bound Eastern Conference team. “There are some players for sure, but it’s not anything like last year. Last year’s group might have as many as 10 All-Stars. It was that good. This year? Maybe a couple of All-Stars? That makes it tough. And not getting all the information you can makes it even harder.”

Another area of particular concern is with international players.

“You feel good because your book on those guys is probably really thick already. Some of them we’ve been watching since they were young kids. Flip side is, it’s going to be a real pain in the butt to meet with these guys. It’ll be months for some of them since we’ve seen them in person. And virtual meetings with a guy who doesn’t speak great English and has to work through a translator? Good luck!” said the lottery-bound Western Conference executive.

The best teams and executives will learn from this year’s upside-down process.

“This draft will tell us who really does their work and when they do it,” the playoff-bound Western Conference executive told NBC Sports. “Our guys are out there as soon as kids are back on campus and as soon as the overseas teams are back together. We know people who don’t really start until the preseason college tournaments. We see them every year in Hawaii (at the Maui Invitational) and they tell us they’re really just getting started. That’s too late. My guys know if they aren’t working, they won’t be working for us. Look, it’s a bad draft, alright? There are going to be major mistakes made because teams just won’t have enough info. Having a late pick isn’t the worst thing this year.”

Nets’ Joe Harris says he hopes to remain with Brooklyn long-term

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Brooklyn Nets wing Joe Harris recently did a virtual video interview with Nets broadcaster Ian Eagle. The two touched on many subjects, including Harris’ upcoming free agency.

Harris made it clear his hope is to be back in Brooklyn. He said, ““In the ideal world, I’d play my whole career in Brooklyn. I came in with (Nets general manager) Sean (Marks), even the ownership. It’s just one of those things where you have a close connection with a lot of people that are within the organization. You kind of all came in together.”

Furthering his comments, Harris expounded on his desire to remain with the Nets long-term, “Now I’ve been here for four years and built unbelievable relationships with everybody that’s a part of the organization. It’s amazing just to see where we’ve gone from Year 1 to now. And I obviously want to be a part of that, and a part of it for a long time.”

Harris will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, following a two-year, $16 million contract he signed with Brooklyn in 2018. The Nets originally plucked Harris off the scrapheap in 2016, after he was traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers and waived by the Orlando Magic. Harris signed a two-year deal for the veteran minimum and quickly became one of the best bargains in the league.

In four seasons with the Nets, Harris has started in 164 of 269 games. Over that time, he’s averaged 11.9 points per game while shooting 42.3% on three-pointers. Harris led the NBA in three-point shooting at 47.4% in 2018-19 and won that season’s three-point contest at All-Star Weekend.