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


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.

Russell Westbrook trade to Houston official, Thunder praise him on way out door

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Whatever their long-term intentions, after Paul George was traded the Oklahoma City Thunder changed focus. General Manager Sam Presti sat down with Russell Westbrook and his agent, talked about the future, what the former MVP wanted, then worked on trading him where he wanted to go.

That was Houston.

The Westbrook to the Rockets trade for Chris Paul — with Oklahoma City picking up two first-round picks and two pick swaps — is now official.

In announcing the trade, the Thunder praised the greatest player in their franchise history on his way out the door.

“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state,” Presti said in a statement. “None of us could have anticipated the player he has become, and we are all deeply proud of what he has contributed to the success of the franchise and to our community. Russell and his wife Nina, their three children, his brother and his parents will always remain part of the Thunder family. We wish them nothing but happiness and success in the future.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans,” said Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. “His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. We wish he and Nina and their family all the best. While this era of Thunder basketball now comes to an end, I’m confident our talented team of people will once again position the Thunder for success in the future.”

While Presti and the OKC front office are still working on a CP3 trade, they are entering a rebuilding phase.

The Rockets are banking on Westbrook and James Harden being able to work out any fit issues — and finding a way to defend with both of them on the court — to keep them as title contenders.

Anthony Davis dances around question about re-signing with Lakers

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After the drama around his push to get to Los Angeles, league executives and other sources around the NBA expect Anthony Davis to re-sign with the Lakers on a max contract next summer.

However, Davis has paired up with LeBron James, and rule one of the LeBron contract playbook (and agent Rich Paul’s, too) is to keep the pressure on a franchise. Make the team improve and keep itself in title contention.

So it’s not a surprise that when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Davis about re-signing with the Lakers, he didn’t answer the question directly.

Nichols: You’re only signed through this season. Do you think you will be a pillar of the Lakers for years and years to come?

Davis: Honestly, Rachel, I’m just focused on this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going make the best of this year. And when that time comes around in the summer or, you know, whenever the season’s over — hopefully, around, you know, mid-June, after we just had a parade, and I need a couple days to think — then we can talk about that. But until then, I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win this year.”

That a well-handled scripted answer hitting all the talking points.

After the NBA summer we have just gone through (and continue to see with Chris Paul), nobody sane will say Davis would never leave the Lakers after one season. Cut to Kevin Garnett screaming “Anything Is Possible.”

However, he came to the Lakers to win rings (now and in the future), to take over as the face of the franchise when LeBron steps away in a few years, to get the kind of recognition and endorsements he felt were not coming his way in New Orleans, and ultimately to have his jersey up in the rafters with Wilt and Kareem and Shaq. That’s the plan. Which means AD will re-sign with the Lakers next summer.

He’s just not going to say that right now.

Kendrick Perkins: ‘Pelicans better lock Zion in the House’ because of great New Orleans food

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Zion Williamson‘s weight became a discussion point during Summer League.

The general consensus going into the draft was that Williamson would ultimately want to play a little lighter in the NBA than he did in college (but without losing his strength). Since then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came out and said the No. 1 pick was not in Summer League shape and should not have played. Some broadcast analysts said he looked heavy. In the hallways and behind-the-basket defacto meeting space of Summer League there was a lot of talk among league watchers about the Pelicans needing to get Zion with their trainers and dietitians to prepare him for the 82 game grind.

Kendrick Perkins warns that’s not going to be all that easy in the Big Easy.

As a wannabe foodie, let me just say that Perkins is spot on about the food in New Orleans. It may be my favorite food city in America, it is home to the ultimate comfort foods, and the portions are not small. From muffulettas to gumbo to po’ boys to fried every-kind-of-protein-you-can-name, New Orleans cuisine is both undeniably delicious and not the foundation of a healthy diet.

It’s going to take some discipline from Williamson, who also can afford his own chef now to keep the meals at home healthy and tasty. Then gumbo can be a splurge-day treat.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

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James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.