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Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperation was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A

Kobe Bryant dies in helicopter crash

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Kobe Bryant, the legendary Laker star who was saluted by LeBron James on Saturday night, has died in a helicopter crash in Southern California, sources have confirmed to NBC Sports.

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northeast of the Staples Center, where Kobe stared as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was active. It was a foggy day in Southern California, which could have contributed to the crash.

The crash killed five people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. It is unclear at this time if any of his family was on board the helicopter with him.

Kobe had a 20-year NBA career that will send him to the Hall of Fame (once he becomes eligible). He was a five-time NBA Champion, a 15-time All-NBA player, NBA MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time All-Star, and a player who influenced a generation who came up after him. His work ethic was legendary and was part of what rubbed off on LeBron and many others.

Kobe’s death came just a day after LeBron passed him for third All-Time in NBA scoring, which led LeBron to talk unscripted for more than five minutes about how he had grown up idolizing Kobe and the influence Kobe had on his life.

Love from former teammates, players pours in as LeBron James passes Kobe

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With a running layup across the lane Saturday night, LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant, moving up to third on the NBA’s All-Time scoring list.

After that, the love started to pour in for LeBron.

First it came from his teammates, then from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, smart basketball fans who appreciate greatness when they see it.

Next Kobe Bryant Tweeted his congratulations.

Then the love flowed in from across the spectrum, including former teammates and other players. Here is just a taste.

LeBron trails only Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the scoring list, with LeBron 4,733 points back of Kareem. The scoring champ was on SiriusXM NBA Radio this past week and he also showed his appreciation for LeBron — and added LeBron could pass him.

“I think it is up to LeBron. If he wants to do it, he’ll do it. He has the talent. He has the opportunity. So it’s just up to him as to how he wants to end his career. I certainly cannot be upset about it. The reason that they keep these records is so that we learn how we are improving. And we learn how to teach the game, taking note of the accomplishments of the great players. So, hey, it’s a natural progression. I don’t have any problem with it.”

Rumor: J.R. Smith to get workout with Los Angeles Lakers

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This is probably nothing.

The Lakers head into the trade deadline — where they have limited players and picks to make a move — and the buyout market looking for a secondary playmaker to come off the bench, plus some more shooting.

J.R. Smith doesn’t fit either of those needs at this point in his career, but he is going to get a workout with the Lakers, reports Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson at Heavy.com.

According to a Lakers source close to the situation, Smith will get a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers next week.

“There are no guarantees,” said the source. “They want to see what he can do and if it is a fit, we’ll take it from there.”

Smith and LeBron James have a history together going back to AAU ball, and Smith was on LeBron’s 2016 title team in Cleveland. Smith also made the blunder in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals that cost the Cavaliers any hope in that series.

However, if the Lakers wanted Smith, they could have signed him at any point this summer. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Smith evolved into a gunner off the bench, a high volume shooter and scorer who creates shots for himself, which won his Sixth Man of the Year back in 2013 but does not fit what the Lakers are looking for right now.

Also, Smith’s skills have been in decline. Last season, Smith, 34, played just 11 games for the Cavaliers — none after November — and struggled with his shot, hitting 30.8 percent from three and he had a dreadful true shooting percentage of 44.4 (he is a career 37.3 percent shooter from three). Smith did not want to be part of a rebuild in Cleveland and asked to be traded, but the team could not find a taker that wanted Smith’s contract and would send a pick back for him. Cleveland waived Smith in July and, while he met with the Bucks, he has been without a contract since.

Don’t read much into Smith getting a workout, there could be a lot of reasons for this. Maybe this gets him on another team’s radar, but it’s hard to see how he helps the Lakers take a step forward right now.

Once again Zach LaVine has huge game against Cavaliers, scores 44 in win (VIDEO)

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Zach LaVine scored 44 points for another dominating performance against Cleveland and the Chicago Bulls defeated the Cavaliers 118-106 on Saturday night.

LaVine made 16 of 30 shots and had 27 points at halftime. The 6-foot-5 guard also finished with 10 rebounds and eight assists, falling just short of his first career triple-double.

It was LaVine’s second big game against Cleveland in eight days. He scored 42 points on Jan. 20, including 21 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls rallied from a 15-point deficit to win.

Cleveland, which has lost seven straight and 12 of 14, had no better success stopping LaVine this time. He drove past his defender for clear looks at the basket, scored when he was double teamed in the lane, hit five 3-pointers and was 7 of 8 from the line.

LaVine was held to 16 points when the Cavaliers beat the Bulls in Cleveland on Oct. 30. The teams play for the fourth and final time this season in Chicago on March 10.

Tomas Satoransky had 19 points for the Bulls, who were coming off a home loss to Sacramento on Friday and arrived in around 1:30 a.m.

Kevin Love scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds for Cleveland. Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman each had 18 points.

The game was tied at 69 midway through the third quarter before the Bulls went on a 30-7 run to go ahead 99-76. Chicago outscored Cleveland 40-19 in the period.

Cleveland cut a 24-point deficit to 112-103 with two minutes to play, but got no closer. The Cavaliers had lopsided home losses to New York and Washington this week.

Chicago didn’t play like a team that’s been plagued by injuries. Forward Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ second-leading scorer, will miss four to six weeks because of an injured right hip. The 7-footer had an MRI on Thursday after experiencing soreness in the hip for about a week.