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Thunder make historic choice to trade star tandem, start over

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The Thunder – despite having stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook – lost in the first round for the second straight year.

“This is a team that can go far,” George said at his exit interview. “We have pieces in place to have a long postseason run.

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, on what’s the next step, the next phase for this group going forward.”

George eventually found his answer – requesting a trade to the Clippers to play with Kawhi Leonard. Oklahoma City acquiesced and then worked with Westbrook to deal him, too. The Thunder are sending Westbrook to the Rockets, completing an unprecedented star teardown.

Oklahoma City is the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in the same summer.

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This is only the third time a team has lost multiple reigning All-NBA players through any mechanism in the same offseason. The other two:

1998/99 Chicago Bulls: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

Jordan retired after winning his third straight championship and sixth in eight years. As the 1998 offseason stretched into 1999 due to a lockout, the Bulls – ready to enter a new era – signed-and-traded Pippen to the Rockets. Chicago stunk for the next six years.

1951 Indianapolis Olympians: Alex Groza and Ralph Beard

Groza and Beard both got banned from the NBA for a point-shaving scandal during their time at Kentucky. The Olympians folded a couple years later.

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Lowering the standard from All-NBA, a few more teams have lost multiple reigning All-Stars in the same offseason. Beyond this year’s Thunder, the other three:

1977 Indiana Pacers: Billy Knight and Don Buse

Forced to pay an entry fee with their merger from the NBA, the Pacers faced financial difficulties after their first NBA season. So, Indiana traded its best players – Knight to the Buffalo Braves for Adrian Dantley and Mike Bantom, Buse to the Suns for Ricky Sobers. Indiana clearly had seller’s remorse, later reacquiring both Knight and Buse.

1964 Detroit Pistons: Bailey Howell and Don Ohl

Following a miserable season, the Pistons traded Howell and Ohl to the Baltimore Bullets for Terry Dischinger, who won Rookie of the Year the season prior. But after one good season in Detroit, Dischinger went into the military and returned a couple years as a lesser player.

1957 New York Knicks: Nathaniel Clifton and Harry Gallatin

The Knicks missed the playoffs for the first time in their 11-year history then sent Clifton and Gallatin to the Pistons for Mel Hutchins. All three players lasted only one more season in the NBA.

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It’s unsurprising teams have so rarely broken up both parts of a star duo. It’s hard enough to get multiple stars on the same team. Once that’s in place, few teams or players want to end the arrangement.

But the Thunder looked stuck. They were already deep into the tax and didn’t get out of the first round. They were too expensive to upgrade further, too good to tank.

George did Oklahoma City a favor by ushering in its next era. The Thunder got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari (who could be flipped) and a massive haul of draft picks from the Clippers. Westbrook netted even more draft considerations from Houston. Oklahoma City has a tremendous head start on its rebuild.

That’s the benefit of trading high-level players before they decline out of stardom.

But that’s also a scary plan. It’s difficult to disrupt a status quo that includes such good players and even moderate playoff success. Few teams or players have the guts for that.

George and Westbrook found even better team situations. They didn’t feel beholden to the Thunder and exercised their rights to push their way out.

Oklahoma City dove in headfirst into that plan in a way no other team ever has. It might be painful in the short term, but the Thunder will be better in the long run because of it.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.