Now what for Thunder? Trading Russell Westbrook could be on the table, reportedly

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One year ago, the NBA world was celebrating the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Small market OKC had gambled on trading for Paul George when his people had warned everyone he wanted to go to Southern California. Then, after one season next to Russell Westbrook, George signed up for four more. He was staying, the Thunder had their two stars and were relevant again. Oklahoma City had won.

One year later, just earlier this week, George’s agent Aaron Mintz walked into the office of team president Sam Presti and demanded a trade. Specifically to the Los Angeles Clippers. George wanted to go home after all and now team up with his friend Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder were flat-out blindsided by the request. George denied this was about issues between him and Westbrook (despite some rumors of disenfranchisement between the two).

Whatever the reason he asked out, the Thunder had no choice but to comply, a season with an unhappy George moping around would be bad for everybody.

Presti played the Clippers off the Raptors and got a serious haul: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who the Clippers are very high on), Danilo Gallinari, and five first-round picks (the Clippers first-round pick unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick and Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick, plus the right to swap picks in 2023 and 2025).

The question facing the Thunder is now what?

They are already a team $16.2 million into the luxury tax, something ownership would pay to stay in a title chase in the wide-open West. But now?

Do they try to stay relevant, watch Russell Westbrook chase another triple-double season, and count on Steven Adams, Gallinari, and the rest of the role players can push them into the playoffs again? The Thunder, as currently constructed, are not a bad team. Yet, even if they make the postseason, after two straight years of first-round eliminations is the goal a third one of those, the most likely outcome for this roster in a very deep West?

Or, do they think about trading Russell Westbrook and hitting the reset button?

Westbrook and his agent sat down with Presti to talk about all of that already, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Oklahoma City’s All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and his agent, Thad Foucher, are engaged with Thunder GM Sam Presti about the next steps of Westbrook’s career, including the possibility of a trade prior to the start of next season, league sources told ESPN.

The two sides have 11 years of history together and both understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities for Westbrook, league sources tell ESPN.

Wojnarowski says the chance of the retooling of the roster, as was done after Kevin Durant left, is “unlikely.”

Trading Westbrook, especially before next season, is much easier said than done.

Westbrook is owed $38.2 million this season and then $41 million in 2020-21, $43.9 million in 2021-22, and a player option for $46.7 million in 2022-23. Or, 169.8 million over the next four years taking him out to age 35, assuming he picks up his option year (which is a safe assumption).

Throw in his ball-dominant style that has frustrated some teammates in the past and not every organization is going to want to get in on the Westbrook sweepstakes. That said, next summer is a weak free agent class and there will be teams that will have cap space them but decide it’s worth it to take on that salary now to land a superstar.

Whatever happens with the Thunder, Presti and company will not be rushed into a poor decision. There will be no immediate action in reaction to George demanding a trade. Presti is too smart for that.

But keep an eye on the Thunder as we move through the summer. Westbrook is on the market now.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.