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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.

Watch Trae Young drop 31 at Drew League, lose to Montrezl Harrell who has 46

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The Drew League in Los Angeles is one of the premiere — for my money the best — summer pro-am basketball league in America. There is some serious talent getting run on that court.

But drop in NBA talent and it’s another level.

That’s what happened Saturday in Los Angeles. Atlanta’s Trae Young showed up, went head-to-head with the reigning Drew League MVP Frank “Nitty” Session (who has embarrassed guys like Denzel Valentine in Drew games), and dropped 31.

But Young’s team lost because Clippers’ stud  Montrezl Harrell dropped 46.

You can see the highlights above thanks to BallisLife.

 

Manny Pacquiao says he has thought about buying part of NBA team when he retires

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At age 40, Manny Pacquiao is not retiring. Even if you and some boxing pundits think he should. Tonight (Saturday) he fights Keith Thurman at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and is expected to pull down about a cool $26 million for his trouble. If you’re getting paid like that, why retire exactly? He has said he wants to fight another five years or so.

After that, he’d like to buy part of an NBA team.

That’s what he told TMZ in a pre-fight interview.

He said he has thought about buying a piece of an NBA team after he retires. Pacquiao, a basketball nut who uses the sport as part of his training, owns an entire semi-pro league — the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League — in the Philippines (one of the most basketball-crazy nations on earth). Pacquiao said he thinks his experience with that league would help him as an NBA owner, that some of the skills will translate, which is likely true. Pacquiao said it’s about finding the right opportunity.

Forbes estimates that Pacquiao will have earned, after Saturday’s fight, more than $500 million in his career. Various websites estimate his net worth in the $200 million range. He’s got the money to jump in as a part owner.

In an NBA that loves personalities and characters — and one always trying to gain more traction in Asian markets — don’t be shocked if this happens someday.

Once Pacquiao retires.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.