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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

Report: Hornets’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist opting in for $13 million

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The Hornets’ last hope for super-maxing out Kemba Walker and avoiding the luxury tax without trading or stretching anyone has been extinguished.

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s $13 million salary locked in for next season, Charlotte faces hard choices.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

If the Hornets re-sign Walker to the super-max, sign their draft picks (Nos. 12, 36 and 52) and add no other free agents, they’d project to be about $9 million over the tax line.

Would Walker take that large of a discount? That $9 million below the super-max would be for just next season. Over a five-year contract with max raises, he’d be leaving about $54 million on the table. And that’s all to maintain a lottery team that’s not really upgrading.

Would Michael Jordan pay the tax? He never has, and I doubt this mediocre team sways him.

The most likely outcome if Walker re-signs: Charlotte trades an undesirable contract – Kidd-Gilchrist’s, Nicolas Batum‘s, Marvin Williams‘, Cody Zeller‘s) – or stretches Bismack Biyombo. Trading those rotation players would probably require a sweetener. Stretching Biyombo would create a cap hit through 2022.

So, the Hornets get even more depleted in the long-term, maybe also the short-term.

That’s the cost of overpaying so many players – including Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays hard and defends well but hasn’t developed enough of an offensive game.

Report: After working out Darius Garland, Knicks set on R.J. Barrett with No. 3 pick

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R.J. Barrett is the consensus No. 3 prospect in this draft. The Knicks have the No. 3 pick.

A potential snag  – New York working out Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland today – apparently won’t keep Barrett from his desired Knicks.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The top of the draft looks clear:

1. Pelicans: Zion Williamson

2. Grizzlies: Ja Morant

3. Knicks: R.J. Barrett

New Orleans has the No. 4 pick but is looking into trading it. I rate Garland as the top available prospect, but the Pelicans already have Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt. They could still take Garland, but the fit would be tricky.

Will New Orleans pick Garland? Take someone else? Trade the pick?

The draft will get interesting at No. 4.

Trade who? Wizards reportedly will offer Bradley Beal three-year, $111 million contract extension

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Predicting what the Wizards will do this off-season — from the No. 9 pick in the draft on Thursday through what to do with Jabari Parker‘s $20 million team option — is difficult because they do not have a permanent general manager. The Wizards have made a run at Toronto’s Masai Ujiri (something sources told me is true despite owner Ted Leonsis’ denials), but for now in-house candidate Tommy Sheppard is running the show (and will for a while longer).

The biggest question: What will the Wizards do with Bradley Beal?

While every team in the league has called to try and feel out trade possibilities, the Wizards are leaning toward offering him a three-year, $111 million extension to his current contract, something reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

“He’s eligible for a three-year, $111 million extension. I’m told it’s the team’s intention to offer that up to him and try and move forward.”

The Wizards should offer it up.

It would be a surprise if Beal accepted it.

In part because he will want to see who is in charge and what direction this person takes the franchise before he commits to it, but also in part because it doesn’t hurt him financially. Beal can get a larger-year four-year extension in the summer of 2020, or become a free agent and sign a max five-year contract in 2021 (or, he could bolt them to another team that summer). Beal is just 25 years old and has not had the kind of injury issues that would make him think he needs to take the security now (he has played 82 games the last two seasons).

This little dance will go on in our nation’s capital, but it signifies nothing. Meanwhile, Beal will gear up for next season, another without John Wall where Beal will once again be the focal point of the office.

Mavericks reportedly front runners to land Al Horford, Lakers and Clippers also interested

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Al Horford is moving on from Boston, the latest blow in a year where the Celtics went from “they will be in the Eastern Conference Finals every year for the next five years at least” to “they’re okay but have a lot of work to do.” It’s been a perfect storm of things gone wrong.

So where does Al Horford play next season?

How about next to Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas?

That’s the buzz, with the two Los Angeles teams trying to get in the conversation, according to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

The Mavericks are considered favorites to land Celtics free-agent big man Al Horford, according to league sources, and the two Los Angeles teams are said to also have interest, though they both have their sights set on bigger fish like Kawhi Leonard.

Dallas makes sense for both sides.

The Mavericks have the cap space to offer Horford the $20 million or more starting salary he wants, reportedly he seeks $100 million across four years (he opted out of a $30.5 million season in Boston for the security of more years). Dallas has $31.3 million in cap space, even after Dwight Powell opting in. While they likely will reach a max deal on a new contract with Porzingis, the Mavs have his bird rights so they can sign Horford then go over the cap to re-sign Porzingis (who missed all of last season recovering from an ACL injury).

On the court, Horford can both be paired with Porzingis — two bigs teams have to defend out to the three-point line — and help limit the young big man’s minutes. While not young at 33 (and the Mavs may regret the final year of a four-year contract), Horford is the kind of glue big man who can do everything well, giving coach Rick Carlisle a lot of options. Horford can score in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good man defender and can protect the rim, and all that versatility makes him valuable. He can fit into the Dallas frontcourt rotation with Porzingis, Dwight Powell, and Maxi Kleber.

That versatility would make him a great second addition to the Clippers if Kawhi Leonard chooses to leave the Raptors to join Doc Rivers’ squad (he Leonard stays the Clippers are out of this running). While Los Angeles start Ivica Zubac at the five, Horford would be an upgrade and they still have Montrezl Harrell off the bench. Horford also could mix in at the four for the Clippers.

For the Lakers, who are looking for a third star, they could sigh Horford at a $20 million starting salary (with raises from there) without having to go through the salary cap gymnastics it would take for them to clear cap space to land someone like Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker.

Horford has fans all over the league and will have options, but Dallas is aggressive and there is a logical fit there.