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Thunder win trade, but can Rockets win big with Russell Westbrook, James Harden?

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Nobody pivots like Sam Presti.

One year ago, the Thunder GM won big getting Paul George to re-sign in Oklahoma City, pairing him with Russell Westbrook, and creating an interesting — if not quite as good as they imagined — team. It was a triumph of the small market. A year later George demands a trade to the Clippers (to go home and team up with Kawhi Leonard) and it forces Presti and the Thunder to pivot, which included bringing in Westbrook to have a conversation about what he wanted next. What he wanted was to get out.

The blockbuster trade came down Thursday and Westbrook is now a member of the Rockets, paired with James Harden again. In the trade, the Thunder take on Chris Paul and get protected first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and the rights to swap picks in 2021 and 2025.

Those picks are why the Thunder win this trade — in a swap of oversized contracts, the Thunder got the worse one but got a lot of compensation for it. Combined with what they got in the Paul George and Jeremi Grant trades, Oklahoma City has pivoted to rebuilding brilliantly and has a treasure chest of picks that makes Danny Ainge look like an amateur. (Paul will be traded again, maybe to Miami, and when all is said and done the Thunder will be out of the luxury tax and have a lot of picks.) Just how many draft picks do the Thunder have right now?

Maybe the Thunder won the trade on paper, but the Rockets believe they can win with this trade. As in a title.

Can they really?

In a vacuum, Westbrook is a better player right now than Chris Paul. He’s younger, more athletic, is more durable, puts up better numbers offensively, and has not shown the same decline in skills as CP3. Westbrook is unquestionably an upgrade at the point guard position for the Rockets.

Houston, however, is not in a vacuum, they already have James Harden dominating the ball and doing it better than anyone in the NBA. The league office continues to insist that only one ball be used at a time, and that gets to the big question about how far the Rockets can go with Westbrook and Harden (two players with the highest single-season usage rates in NBA history, and they were first and 10th in the league last year in usage rate).

The Rockets will be the ultimate version of “my turn, your turn” basketball. Rockets backers will point out that both are very good in isolation and can play off the ball. For example, Westbrook played off the ball more last season, particularly early on (when George was hot and establishing himself as an MVP candidate). That is true, however, Westbrook also shot 33 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season. Not an impressive number. We already saw last year with the Thunder, when George had the ball teams helped off Westbrook, not afraid he could make them pay with a jump shot.

When Harden is off the ball, he tends to stand a lot out near halfcourt and conserve energy. He’s not going to be confused with Klay Thompson or J.J.  Redick the way he moves. That said, the man can shoot threes and will be someone defenses have to watch, but mostly Harden will just be watching.

The problem for lame-duck coach Mike D’Antoni and the Houston offense is spacing. With center Clint Capela paired with Westbrook and Harden, it only leaves a couple of guys (Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker) that are true catch-and-shoot threats. Defenses will collapse and help off non-shooters, clogging the lane.

Maybe it all comes together for Houston. Maybe “my turn, your turn” basketball works when you have two of the best isolation players in the game taking turns. Houston was the second-best team in the West the last two years and just upgraded at the point guard spot. They certainly are in the title contention mix in a West that has so many duos it feels like NBA Jam.

But it may be a lateral move for the Rockets — they got more talent, but we need to see the fit before fully buying into the Rockets as elite contenders who could knock off the Clippers/Jazz/Lakers.

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.

 

Report: NBA group stage could include 24 teams

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Bulls guard Zach LaVine
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The initial report on the NBA resuming with a group stage presented a 20-team scenario. There’d be four groups with five teams each – one from each tier of the current standings:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

Teams would play each other team in its group, and the top two finishers in each group would advance to an eight-team tournament (effectively the second round of the playoffs, though without conference splits).

But that format could apparently include four more teams.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups

The simplest way to expand to 24 teams would be adding a sixth tier then forming four groups of six. That’d mean adding:

  • Tier 6: Suns, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls

Bleh.

The more games the NBA holds, the more money the league will make. But the more people involved, the more risk of someone contracting and spreading coronavirus. It’s a fine line, and the league has sought a middle ground.

Phoenix, Washington, Charlotte and Chicago strike me as too lousy to include. Those teams are well outside the normal playoff race, and there’s no good reason to believe they would’ve made a late push.

In this environment, they might have shot, though. Coronavirus increases variability. Players have had differing access to resources and differing motivation to train during the hiatus. Once play resumes, positive tests could be scattered randomly. Would anyone view the Suns, Wizards, Hornets or Bulls as deserving of a berth in the eight-team tournament? If one of those four teams qualified, that’d probably just show the setup was flawed.

The fairest way to set the playoffs is with 20 teams, depending on structure. Resuming with just 16 teams wouldn’t be that far behind. The highest financial upside comes with all 30 teams, but that seems infeasible.

Setting the line at 24 teams seems like the worst of most worlds – including four bad teams that wouldn’t generate much interest but would threaten to disrupt everything else.