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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

James Harden scores 37 but Joel Embiid’s 32 leads 76ers to 121-93 rout of Rockets

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid relished the chance to face James Harden, and wasn’t going to let a little back tightness stop him.

Embiid had 32 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past fellow MVP contender Harden and the Houston Rockets 121-93 on Monday night.

“I love playing against guys you guys say are better than me,” Embiid said.

Harden, selected Western Conference player of the week earlier in the day, finished with 37 points – giving him 20 straight games with at least 30.

Philadelphia played without four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (sore right wrist), and Embiid more than made up for his absence.

“It was really fun for us,” Embiid said. “Don’t think it was fun for them.”

Embiid was questionable before the game with lower back soreness and coach Brett Brown hinted during pregame it might be best for the Philadelphia big man to sit this one out. Embiid clearly had other intentions.

“I want to fight with my teammates,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I’ll do for my team.”

His 24 first-half points helped Philadelphia to a 65-50 halftime lead, and he punctuated an entertaining opening 24 minutes by pinning Harden’s layup attempt with 7.5 seconds left for a crowd-pleasing block. The duo had to be separated with 38.7 seconds left in the half, with each being issued a technical, after Harden took exception to Embiid’s foul on him.

The 76ers broke the game open in a dominant third quarter as they outscored Houston 29-13 to take a 94-63 advantage into the fourth. Ben Simmons stole Harden’s pass, made a layup and finished a three-point play after being fouled by Harden to make it 73-52. The lead kept growing, getting as large as 31.

“We were due for a game like this,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden had 10 points in the third but missed four of six field goal tries as the 76ers hounded him defensively with double-teams and different looks. A tired-looking Harden’s air ball with 12.3 seconds left in the third showed the effects of the Philadelphia defense – and, perhaps, Harden’s offensive workload.

With the game out of range, Harden sat in the fourth.

“This is not a great way to rest him, but we rested him today,” D’Antoni said.

 

Doc Rivers seemingly blames Steve Ballmer for Clippers losing Joe Ingles

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Entering the 2014-15 season, the Clippers had to waive someone to meet the regular-season roster maximum. Their choice came down to Joe Ingles and Jared Cunningham, neither of whom had guaranteed salaries.

L.A. kept Cunningham and waived Ingles. Cunningham never made a significant NBA impact. The Jazz claimed Ingles on waivers, and he became a quality starter in Utah.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers was also team president at that time.

Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News:

When asked Wednesday if he regrets that decision, Rivers answered, “all the time.”

“I said it the day we released him that this was a bad decision and that we’re going to regret it,” he said. “Unfortunately I was working for someone who said we couldn’t eat a contract. We were begging to eat one contract and they said that will never happen and we had to let him go.”

Did Rivers confuse the timeline and think he was blaming Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who was notoriously cheap? Current owner Steve Ballmer bought the team and was announced as the owner before the start of the 2014-15 season, when Ingles was signed for camp and released. Ballmer has talked big about spending, and is Rivers’ boss right now. It’d be strange for Rivers to criticize Ballmer like this, but I also can’t figure out whom else he’d be referring to besides the owner. As team president, Rivers had no other oversight within basketball operations.

Maybe Rivers wanted to keep both Ingles and Cunningham and waive someone with a guaranteed salary – likely Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ekpe Udoh or Glen Davis. But, in hindsight, the obviously right call would have been waiving whichever of those players was necessary to keep Ingles.

The frequent criticism of the Clippers about Ingles is somewhat unfair. They brought Ingles to training camp when other teams didn’t. The only reason they were positioned to waive him is because they were ahead of the curve on him.

But they also had the unique opportunity to evaluate him up close and still decided he wasn’t worth a roster spot.

How did that decision get made? Rivers passing the buck only adds confusion. It seemed as if it were his decision.

Luka Doncic becomes second NBA teenager to record triple-double, Bucks rout Mavs anyway

Associated Press
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Is Luka Doncic an All-Star?

He’s not a starter (in my vote, anyway) but in what is an exhibition designed to give the fans what they want, why not have Doncic in the game? He is what the fans want. I’m not convinced he’ll make the cut — at least in the ridiculously deep West, in the East he probably would — but it’s a legitimate conversation. The kid can flat-out ball.

Case in point, he dropped a triple-double on the Bucks on MLK Day, becoming only the second teenager to record an NBA triple-double. (The other was Markelle Fultz, who was 10-days younger when he got his, also against Milwaukee.) Doncic finished the game with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Doncic’s play was not enough to keep the Bucks from racking up their fifth straight win, and doing it pretty easily (although Dallas made an 11-0 fourth-quarter run to make it a little interesting). Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 15 rebounds, while Eric Bledsoe had 21 points, and Brook Lopez finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks (that was Lopez’s first double-double with the Bucks).

Reports: Houston trades Carmelo Anthony to Chicago, who will waive him

Associated Press
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Carmelo Anthony‘s sabbatical is over. Sort of.

Anthony, who has been on the Houston roster but not with the team after that experiment crashed and burned 10 games into the season, will be traded to the Chicago Bulls. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story (and other reports have since confirmed it). However, he’s not going to be putting on a Bulls’ jersey.

He may not be waived until after the Feb. 7 deadline, in case the Bulls find a way to use his salary in a one-for-one trade (his salary cannot be combined with others in a deal because he was just traded). If/when he is waived, at that point there will be more roster shuffling around the league and a landing spot for ‘Melo may open up.

Houston’s trade is much like the trade from Oklahoma City to Atlanta last summer that moved Anthony off the Thunder roster. The Hawks waived him and Anthony signed with the Rockets. For the Rockets, this is about saving money.

The Bulls also make a little under a million in this deal. If another team signs Anthony, it would be a benefit for the Hawks.

It’s unclear where Anthony’s ultimate landing spot will be, although his agent has said there are options.

After his struggles in Houston — where the future Hall of Famer thought he deserved more than a bench role due to his stature, even though because of his declining offensive skills and defense that’s all he warranted — it’s hard to imagine another contender or even playoff team picking him up. Maybe a franchise going all in on the Zion Williamson chase but wants a bump at the gate from the name recognition Anthony brings him in? Although for teams trying to develop young talent why take the ball out of those young guys’ hands to let Anthony jack up contested twos? Most likely it will be a team battling injuries and looking for help.

In 10 games for the Rockets this season coming off the bench, Anthony averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, shot just 40.5 percent overall and 32.8 percent from three. The Rockets’ defense was 10.4 points per 100 possessions better when Anthony sat.