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Thunder have big stars and a huge payroll. But do they have enough to contend?

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Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook will turn 30 next month, and he’s due nearly $207 million over the next five seasons. He has a legitimate co-star in Paul George, who’s locked up at the max for three more years. They have a dirty-work sidekick in Steven Adams, who’s also signed to a lucrative deal for three more years. And Oklahoma City is on track to pay one of the largest luxury-tax bills in NBA history to keep the supporting cast stocked.

It probably doesn’t get any better than this for the Thunder.

But how good is it?

The season after losing Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City valiantly won 47 games and made the playoffs. The Thunder followed that by acquiring George and Carmelo Anthony, building hype then… winning 48 games and again losing in the first round.

Sure, there were signs of growth from Year 1 to Year 2 post-Durant. Oklahoma City went from 43 to 50 Pythagorean wins, and whatever you think Anthony will do with the Rockets, he was awful for the Thunder. That underlying improvement despite Anthony dragging down the team bodes well for the future.

Yet, Oklahoma City still appears likely to top out at a single playoff-series victory this season. The Thunder are widely projected to finish third or fourth in the West, which would come with home-court advantage in the first-round. But that opening playoff opponent would be no pushover, and in this loaded Western Conference, there’s far more room to fall than climb. It’s tough to see Oklahoma City surpassing the Warriors or Rockets. But I have the Thunder behind the Jazz, and falling into the Nuggets/Lakers/Pelicans/Trail Blazers/Spurs/Timberwolves (if they keep Jimmy Butler) pack is quite possible. That’d come with a potential first-round series against Golden State, Houston or some other better team.

Personally, I’m fine with Oklahoma City competing as hard as possible and letting the chips fall where they may. They have a strong culture and devoted fan base, and sometimes that can be enough. Everyone seems to be enjoying the pursuit. It doesn’t always have to be title or bust.

But the Thunder are just a couple years removed from legitimate championship contention with Durant, and it’s hard to accept less after experiencing those thrills. Plus, this type of spending usually comes with lofty internal expectations.

Is there any way Oklahoma City can break through?

When word initially leaked about George re-signing, the cited reason was his belief in the significance of Andre Roberson‘s season-ending injury. The Thunder were hitting their stride when Roberson went down in January and weren’t the same since.

Oklahoma City with Westbrook, George and Adams on and…

  • Roberson on: +13.5 points per 100 possessions
  • Roberson off: +2.7 points per 100 possessions

Roberson is an elite defender, and though he’s a poor shooter, Westbrook has the explosiveness to burst through tight spaces.

But Roberson will miss at least two months with a setback in his rehab. That’s a huge loss for the Thunder. He should be healthy for the playoffs, but seeding matters, and the postseason will intensify concerns about his shooting.

Really, it’s telling Oklahoma City is so affected by the loss of a role player like Roberson. He’s a helpful contributor, but the Thunder shouldn’t be so fragile without him.

Maybe there’s a more dangerous team here than it appears. There’s also time for the Thunder to improve their roster if it isn’t already good enough for championship contention. This isn’t a one-year window.

But whatever is on the other side of the glass, the window is open now.

Attorney representing Kelli Tennant, Luke Walton’s accuser, releases statement

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Right now a lot of people around the league — the Sacramento Kings, the Golden State Warriors, and the NBA league office itself — are starting investigations into the allegations that newly-minted Kings’ coach Luke Walton sexually assaulted a female reporter back while an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors.

These allegations blindsided not only the Kings but the entire NBA, and there is no history with the Santa Monica Police Department (the city where the alleged assault took place) because no crime was ever reported.

Now Garo Mardirossian, the attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit Kelli Tennant, has released a statement (and later today will conduct a press conference). Here is his statement, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“As alleged in the lawsuit, women connected to the National Basketball Association have long had to suffer in silence through the indignities of gender abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of famous, wealthy, and powerful men. Aided by their fame, money, and power, and motivated by a culture that tolerates misogynistic gender-bias, too many men in professional basketball inappropriately abuse women. As alleged in the lawsuit, defendant Luke Walton — a former professional basketball player and the former head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers — is one of these men.

As alleged in the lawsuit, Kelli Tennant — a former collegiate athlete and star sports broadcaster, is a woman who has had to tolerate and summer in silence from the abuse she suffered at the hands of Luke Walton. By way of this lawsuit, Ms. Tennant is speaking out and saying #timesup to the culture of abusing women in the NBA.”

Walton’s attorney Mark Baute previously released this statement:

“Luke Walton retained me to defend him against these baseless allegations. The accuser is an opportunist, not a victim, & her claim is not credible. We intend to prove this in a courtroom.”

Tennant was a host with the Lakers’ regional sports network when the incident reportedly took place in 2016, before Walton had been hired as the Lakers’ coach. According to the lawsuit, she had written a book and wanted him to write the book’s forward. She met him in the lobby of the hotel, agreed to go up to his room to discuss the book, and it was there he pinned her to the bed, kissed her and tried to force himself on her, according to the lawsuit allegations. She says she screamed and tried to get up, but he pinned her in place. Eventually, she was able to get away, according to the lawsuit.

Walton, through his attorney, denies this is what happened. The Kings have stuck by Walton while the investigation is ongoing.

Right now there are a lot of people trying to find out what happened in that hotel room three years ago, and just as many trying to spin the story as it develops.

NBA television ratings down first weekend of playoffs (following season trend)

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There was some serious competition for eyeballs last weekend when the NBA opened its playoffs with eight games over two days. Most importantly, Tiger Woods was on the leaderboard (and eventually won) The Masters, and that was the big draw for sports fans all weekend. Then by Sunday night, Game of Thrones was all anyone wanted to talk about.

Still, NBA television ratings were down for the first weekend of action, in some cases by more than 40 percent. Paulson at Sports Media Watch broke down the numbers.

Ratings and viewership declined double-digits for all-but-one NBA playoff window over the weekend. The exception was Saturday’s Clippers-Warriors Game 1, which had a 3.0 and 4.83 million on ABC in primetime — up 7% in ratings and 13% in viewership from ABC’s opener last postseason (Spurs-Warriors: 2.8, 4.28M) and up 20% in both measures from its 2017 opener (Pacers-Cavaliers: 2.5, 4.04M). Those games aired in the afternoon.

Versus the same window last year, Heat-Sixers on ESPN, ratings and viewership both increased 20% (from 2.5 and 4.02M)…

The rest of the weekend was a dud. On Sunday, ABC earned a 2.55 and 3.90 million for Thunder-Blazers Game 1 — down 32% in ratings and 34% in viewership from last year (Pacers-Cavaliers: 3.8, 5.94M) and down 31% and 40% respectively from 2017 (Blazers-Warriors: 3.7, 6.52M). It was ABC’s least-watched opening weekend playoff game in four years (2015 Pelicans-Warriors: 3.49M).

While there have been entertaining series in the first round — Brooklyn/Philadelphia and Portland/Oklahoma City in particular — only one series, Denver and San Antonio, will go at least six and maybe seven. That does not help. On the bright side for the NBA, the matchups get far more compelling in the second round, Houston and Golden State out West, and both series in the East (Philly vs. Toronto, Boston vs. Milwaukee).

Also, there is no LeBron James in the playoffs. Stars are draws.

While the numbers (both on traditional broadcast and cable) were down, and were this season for the league, this is more of a broad trend across sports. With the advent of streaming and changing view habits, live NBA games (and sports in general) can provide one of the few “must watch live” moments, which makes it valuable to advertisers and networks. However, capturing those viewers, particularly younger ones under the age of 35, is much more difficult. There’s a reason the NBA started offering streamed snippets of games on their streaming services (you could buy just 10 minutes of league pass, or tune in at the end of a close game just to watch that finale). Getting those viewers in front of a traditional television is not as easy as it once was.

It’s something the NBA thinks a lot about. It’s also something every professional sports league around the globe is struggling with.

Report: Lakers interviewed Jason Kidd for head coaching position Monday

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If you want to know what would really freak Lakers’ nation out, this potential outcome would be it.

While the Lakers have seemed focused on Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams as the frontrunners to be their next head coach (both have second interviews this week), Lakers brass interviewed Jason Kidd on Monday, reports Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

Kidd’s interview was with general manager Rob Pelinka, as well as team executive Kurt Rambis and was conducted at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo, California. The interview with the Hall of Fame point guard lasted for several hours, sources told ESPN.

Kidd probably would get a thumbs’ up from LeBron James, the pair were teammates for Team USA and LeBron is known to respect Kidd. Maybe it’s for that reason that Kidd’s name came up early as someone the Lakers would consider.

Kidd’s reputation as a coach has seemingly hit a low point after he was let go in Milwaukee, then Mike Budenholzer came in this season and took the same core of a roster to the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer will likely be named coach of the year because he modernized the Bucks attack and defense, taking them out of Kidd’s 1990s influenced style and putting the players in much better positions. The changes and results were striking.

For a Laker team whose roster building and organization have seemed a little stuck in the past in recent years, hiring Kidd would not seem a way forward. He at least got a foot in the door and an interview.

Report: Monty Williams the Suns’ top target for coach

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The Suns – callously, but understandably – fired Igor Kokoskov after his very first season as an NBA head coach.

Monty Williams emerged quickly as a target.

In fact, he’s at the front of the line.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Consider this yet another signal the Lakers will hire Tyronn Lue.

Williams and Lue are reportedly the Lakers’ main candidates. But why would Williams pick the Suns and all their problems over the Lakers and… um, all their problems? At least the Lakers have LeBron James and the Los Angeles market.

Maybe Phoenix appeals to Williams even though it wouldn’t to most candidates. Maybe the Suns are making a bold (delusional?) move to lure Williams, even if he’s truly still under consideration with the Lakers.

But it’s tough to believe they’d convey such strong public interest without believing they’ll get Williams. And it’s hard to believe they’ll get Williams unless the Lakers pass first.

Williams deserves to coach in the league again. He did a good, though not great, job with the Pelicans. He got fired from New Orleans, stepped away from coaching when his wife died and then joined the 76ers’ staff. This would be a solid hire by the Suns if they can pull it off.

They should also talk to other candidates like Trail Blazers assistant David Vanterpool. Nothing is assured with Williams, and a wide search can only help.