J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Thunder’s Andre Roberson hoping to be at full strength by Christmas

8 Comments

Why did Paul George re-sign with the Thunder after they disappointingly lost in the first round? Reportedly, in part, because he believed Andre Roberson — who suffered a season-ending patellar-tendon injury in January — was a huge loss. That made sense, considering Oklahoma City was really hitting its stride before Roberson went down. The elite perimeter defender fit so well on that team.

But for Roberson to make the difference, he must actually get back to full strength. When will that happen?

Roberson, via FOX 29:

I’m not really putting a particular timeline on it, but I want to come back to myself somewhere in, like, December. It would be great if it happened before Christmas. That’d be great. But, like I said, not putting a timeline on it. Just taking it a day at a time.

With Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are prioritizing the present. They’ll have a hard time winning a championship, but I really like them as a team paying to win as much as possible — however far that takes them.

So, seeding will be very important. The Thunder would be a huge underdog to the Warriors in a playoff series. I’d also pick the Rockets and Jazz over Oklahoma City. The longer they avoid those teams, the better shape the Thunder will be in.

So, no, they absolutely shouldn’t rush back Roberson. But how soon he returns to his Defensive Player of the Year-candidate form could make a huge difference in the playoffs.

Thunder secured Paul George, surprisingly kept spending

Getty Images
2 Comments

NBCSports.com’s 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.

The Thunder clearly made headway with Paul George throughout last season.

But then signs of disaster struck internally and externally.

The Jazz ran through Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoff, exposing all the Thunder’s liabilities. It also became increasingly apparent LeBron James would choose the Lakers.

The Lakers with George would have been better than the Thunder with him, and he could have fulfilled his longstanding desire to play for his hometown team. Even if his Los Angeles interest was overstated or he wasn’t fond of joining LeBron, George had numerous other options. The 76ers and Jazz were already better than Oklahoma City. George would have vaulted either team even further ahead.

On the other hand, the Thunder looked like they might take a step back even if they re-signed George. Though Andre Roberson getting healthy would help, Oklahoma City’s payroll was getting quite high. Most small-market teams would shed salary, either by trading helpful contributors or attaching draft picks as sweeteners to unload overpaid players.

Yet, just when the walls of Thunder’s yearlong recruitment of George appeared to be caving in, George re-signed – even locking in for three years (with a fourth-year player option on his max contract). Keeping George – who likely never would have even considered Oklahoma City in free agency if he spent last season elsewhere – is a coup.

We might never know why George agreed so quickly to re-sign, not even meeting with the Lakers. Maybe he just became so attached to Russell Westbrook, George wasn’t leaving under any circumstances. But perhaps the Thunder sold him on their ambitiously expensive plan to upgrade the roster.

Oklahoma City is on pace to pay more than $93 million in luxury tax next season, which would be a record. Perhaps, the Thunder will stretch Kyle Singler. That could drop them below the $90 million-plus the Nets paid in luxury tax in 2014. But Oklahoma City is in the same range despite not nearing Brooklyn in market size.

This is the same Thunder franchise still reeling from the perception it traded James Harden over luxury-tax concerns. What a way to change a narrative.

Oklahoma City re-signed Jerami Grant to a three-year, $27,346,153 deal. That’s an expensive outlay, especially considering the Thunder are just entering the repeater luxury tax and have multiple veterans on expensive long-term deals. They’re facing a big tax bill for years to come.

Smaller moves also prove quite costly in this environment. Oklahoma City picked three players in the second round – Hamidou Diallo (No. 45), Devon Hall (No. 53) and Kevin Hervey (No. 57) – but signed only Diallo. Rostering second-round picks can save teams in luxury tax, as players signed as draft picks for less than the second-year minimum count less toward the tax than minimum free agents. But Hall will play overseas next season, and Hervey remains unsigned. Instead, Oklahoma City signed Raymond Felton and Nerlens Noel for the minimum (Noel’s cost landing even higher because he received a player option). If they signed Hall and Hervey instead of Felton and Noel, the Thunder would have saved nearly $9 million next season.

Even moves described as cost-cutting weren’t. Once the Thunder decided to part with Carmelo Anthony, stretching him became the baseline. That would have cost $9,309,380 (minus potential set-offs) each of the next three seasons. Instead, Oklahoma City traded him for Dennis Schroder, who has a $15.5 million salary for each of the next three seasons. Unlike the cap hit for a waived Anthony, the Thunder could always move Schroder later to save money. But this trade was not a salary dump.

In the Anthony trade, the Thunder also landed Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, a worthwhile wing flier. But Oklahoma City surrendered a lottery-protected 2022 first-rounder that becomes two second-rounders if the Thunder make the playoffs that year. That’s surprisingly high price for Schroder, who many viewed as negative salary.

The only creative penny-pinching Oklahoma City did was trading for Abdel Nader, who’ll count less toward the luxury tax than a free agent because he signed as a drafted player with the Celtics.

Small picture:

  • I’m not sure Grant is worth his cost. He’s a quality defender in a switching scheme, and using him at center provides a style Oklahoma City lacks otherwise. If nothing else, he’s active offensively. But his subpar shooting lowers his ceiling and becomes especially costly in the playoffs.
  • I’m not sure Felton is worth his cost. He was a bargain as a steadying backup point guard, but downgrading him to third string, maybe Oklahoma City would have been better off with a cheaper developmental piece.
  • I’m not sure Noel is worth his cost. He still has plenty of untapped potential, but there are major questions about his work ethic. How much will he play with Adams, Grant and Patrick Patterson all capable at center?
  • I’m not sure Schroder is worth his cost. Even beyond his potential felony charge, basketball questions emerge. He might hit enough spot-up 3s to thrive with Westbrook. He might not. His ability to attack after Westbrook tilts the defense is intriguing. At minimum, he’ll liven up the offense when Westbrook sits. But the idea that his cost is only the difference between his salary and Anthony’s stretch amount ($6,190,620) is limited. Potential trade partners will value Schroder at his full $15.5 million salary.

Big picture:

  • Who cares?

It’s not my money. If Thunder owner Clay Bennett is willing to spend big, that’s great for the team. Kudos to him.

With Westbrook, Anthony and Adams guaranteed huge salaries, Oklahoma City wasn’t going to clear cap room this summer. Re-signing George long-term ensured the Thunder would be capped out as long they kept their core players. So, additional spending doesn’t hinder flexibility in an significant way. It just helps the on-court product.

My only concern is Oklahoma City fails to meet internal expectations and becomes more reluctant to spend in future seasons. I consider the Thunder more likely to lose in the first round than reach the conference finals, more likely to miss the playoffs than reach the NBA Finals.

But those expectations are higher than they would have been if Oklahoma City dodged the luxury tax. Westbrook is a 29-year-old superstar reliant on his athleticism. There is no tomorrow. Every playoff game is its own reward.

If Bennett is demanding a championship for his massive expenditure, he’ll likely be disappointed. Personally, I’m just impressed with a team that’s much better than it could have been on a tight budget.

Offseason grade: A

Report: Celtics trade Abdel Nader to Thunder

Getty Images
2 Comments

Abdel Nader was one of those second-round gambles by the Celtics — the No. 58 pick in the 2016 NBA draft — that paid off better than expected. Nader was the D-League Rookie of the Year, then last season the wing got into 48 games for the big club in Boston, showing some potential as a three-point shooter (but also struggling with his efficiency in other areas).

Boston wanted to trim some salary now, so Nader is on his way to Oklahoma City (once the Carmelo Anthony trade goes through and they have cap space).

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the story.

That cash will undoubtedly cover Nader’s $1.4 million salary, plus some more to help offset the crazy tax bill the Thunder still have coming. The Celtics will waive Purvis, who does not have a guaranteed deal.

All of this will save the Celtics about $450,000, getting them closer to going under the luxury tax line, they are about $2.5 million over it currently. (With this roster the Celtics are eventually going to pay a huge tax bill, but if they can avoid paying the tax this season that delays the painful repeater tax by a year, helping down the line. Expect to see more cash saving moves, don’t be shocked if Marcus Morris is the one on the trade block.)

While Andre Roberson and Paul George will start on the wing for OKC, Nader may be able to find minutes behind them. The Thunder have a mix of guys — Terrance Ferguson, Alex Abrines, Timothe Luwawu, Kyle Singler — who have yet to fully establish themselves in the league. Nader will have a chance to crack that group and get some run, if he can take several steps forward with this game.

5 up, 5 down: Is LeBron going to the Lakers wack, meaningless, or great?

AP
11 Comments

5 Up, 5 Down is a column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

We haven’t published this column for some time as we have been gone sunning ourselves outside in the beautiful NBA offseason. But now we are back, and LeBron James is rightly on the West Coast. His decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers felt all but inevitable, and even if it doesn’t quite have the basketball impact many are hoping for when it comes to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it’s still the biggest story of the summer.

It seems like LeBron coming to California is a big deal, but if we are to believe that he doesn’t have a real chance of tipping the Warriors or rockets in the postseason, I’m not sure it actually has an appreciable difference on how we view the regular season. The Lakers always get talked about — as does James — so combining them is almost becomes more of an ease of access thing for NBA media.

I kid, of course, but if we have to seriously listen to people pontificate all season about why LeBron can’t make the NBA Finals this year with a roster that includes JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson, that’s another thing. No doubt some of us are headed that way no matter what, so I suppose we should just tuck in for the ride.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Kawhi isn’t a Laker

As with most Millennials, I am firmly in the camp of players having more control over their destiny in the NBA. But something about this Kawhi Leonard thing … just isn’t right.

It all started a while back when we heard rumors about Leonard drinking nothing but alkaline water, which is something that only gets sold on Instagram promoted feeds and in the types of grocery stores where the hot bar is $15.99 a pound. That seemed harmless enough, but we really haven’t talked about how Leonard and his “people” keep pushing him into a direction away from the league’s best franchise.

Set aside all of the weirdness with Tony Parker and how the Spurs managed his injury over the course of last season: it now it seems like there might always be serious distance created by those advisors between Leonard and whatever team he may be on.

If you are the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team looking at Leonard, I think there are several things to look at. It’s not just about his injury history, and it’s not about trying to make the right swap that keeps your roster mostly intact. It’s also examining the people that are around Leonard and what kind of things they’re going to put into his ear next.

I’m sure I will be proven wrong about all of this in 20 years when Leonard’s book comes out, but in the meantime it definitely seems like such a stark turn it’s hard to ignore the “hidden advisor” aspect of this whole thing. Plus, the NBA is not better when the Los Angeles Lakers are good. LA hasn’t won more than 40 games since 2013 and in that time the association has taken off. Don’t @ me.

Trade him to the Clippers.

DeMarcus Cousins is a Warrior

This move is all kinds of weird on paper, but it makes sense for both parties involved and I am okay with it. First, Cousins gets to try to rehabilitate not only his image as a franchise player, but his playing ability when it comes to being offered a max contract in the summer of 2019.

For Golden State, it’s worth the risk if Cousins comes back toward the end of the season and plays dominant basketball or some semblance of the way he did before his Achilles tear. That makes Golden State even more ridiculous, and perhaps pushes us toward the league finding a way to stop guys taking discounts in their primes to load up on one team.

Plus, if you are a Warriors hater there is like a 30% chance that DeMarcus will torpedo the Golden State locker room.

All the weirdo guys the Lakers signed

We all agree that every Lakers signing works toward the goal of creating a reality show and not an NBA team, right? Next year will not be about basketball for LeBron James. What a Lakeshow.

Paul George staying in OKC

Every single person cannot go to the Lakers, and as the Thunder moved towards trying to keep their own players it only made sense that they were going to offer Paul George a massive contract like the one he signed.

The Thunder will be able to duck some of their luxury tax filings with the Carmelo Anthony move, but still Oklahoma City will carry a massive cap figure as they battle for a middle place finish in the Western Conference. It sort of reminds me about those early 2000s Portland Trail Blazers teams that were always over the luxury tax and getting walloped by the Lakers or the Spurs in the playoffs. It’s truly a beautiful thing to watch a ownership group set a bunch of money on fire for a Game 5 elimination in the second round.

Good for George, and too bad for the Thunder. They won’t have a lot of maneuvering space and I’m not sure getting back Andre Roberson will be enough to counteract the rest of the improvements made in the Western Conference this offseason.

Chris Paul has a gigantic contract

If you are a Rocket hater you should probably love the Chris Paul contract. It’s massive, and although it keeps Houston in contention for the next couple of years alongside the Golden State Warriors, it also means that the Rockets will be laden with Paul’s contract as he continues to age.

Remember, Paul is a player who had knee surgery a decade ago and there are serious doubts about whether he can make it through an entire season — or postseason — without taking on a serious injury.

Houston can play beautiful basketball when they are in the regular season. But in the playoffs this year, they became the same old story. Watching James Harden and Paul use gamesmanship to grab 35 fouls per quarter was boring as hell, and I’m not going to root for it. The regular season Rockets are fun, but the postseason version isn’t. Paul’s decline is likely coming soon, which should save us from having to watch Playoff Houston for too much longer.

5 Down

LeBron James is a Laker

This was both the wackest way possible for LeBron James to end his tenure in Cleveland while simultaneously being the most obvious.

The supposition here, especially with the current Lakers roster, is that James is waving the white flag against the Warriors and the Rockets, allowing them to take over the basketball side of the postseason while he takes on more of a brand focus. That’s fine, and Los Angeles certainly is a good place to do that. There is no arguing that, it’s just that now that James is in LA it’s going to make Lakers fans feel as though their team is relevant again.

Let’s be clear: not even good teams in the NBA are relevant. The Lakers aren’t a good team, even with James on them. There is an 80% chance LA is a complete tire fire next year, which will be fun to watch if you aren’t from Glendale. I’m not saying the Milwaukees and Phoenixes of the world need to be given a fair shake. I’m just not conceding that LeBron in LA is cool in any way.

I suppose this move to California doesn’t matter given that LeBron’s legacy is already set. Even if he plays out the entirety of this next contract with the Lakers, no one will ever think of him as a Laker first. He’s always going to be a Cavalier, then a Heat, then a Laker. It’s weird that moving to Los Angeles, given all of its benefits, won’t have an impact on LeBron’s legacy. If he wins a championship, then we can talk.

Las Vegas Summer League

Summer League is ridiculous. It’s full of bad basketball and air balls, all by top picks you hoped would be much better in their first NBA action. Meanwhile, Vegas itself is a nightmare. It’s a hundred degrees outside by 8:45 AM and any time spent heading to the UNLV facilities is largely dominated by wanting to not soak through your button down shirt.

Here are the stories you can write every year coming out of Summer League. There’s no need to even have this thing.

  • Player A has gained 20 pounds of muscle.
  • Player B was a shooter in college but apparently can’t shoot now.
  • Player C was a second rounder who looks ready to start.
  • Player D scared an entire fanbase when he tweaked a knee. He’s fine, but now you assume he’s going to get hurt if he plays more than eight minutes at a time.
  • Player E went in the Top 5 and is scoring 25 points per game against dudes who will get cut by Israeli league teams. He’s going to fall on his face maybe 10 out of the first 20 games of the actual season.

LVSL exists for one explicit purpose and that’s for all us blog boys to meet each other in person to find out how weird looking we all are. Call me when Summer League is somewhere cool, like Portland. Or the moon.

The Draft was boring

We didn’t have any current NBA players traded during the first round of the actual draft itself. The salary cap crunch has hit everybody particularly hard, and save for the teams going after the likes of the LeBron Jameses and the Paul Georges of the world, many teams had to simply do what the draft was intended for: take the best guy available to develop them.

It’s not like those players can’t get traded later, but it does seem as though many teams will be taking a chance on long-term development of players they might not have wanted in first place.

Meanwhile, all I can think about is how dumb the NBPA was for not agreeing to cap smoothing. Those guys are usually pretty smart, and they have a lot of help on their side, including Michelle Roberts. Maybe they were just scared off by literally every CBA negotiation they’ve ever had with the NBA, where they usually get their own butts handed to them in some unforeseen way. But the NBPA’s flat-out refusal to smooth the cap — as the league suggested for their own good — was a huge blunder. Sure, they gave giant chunks of money all at once to guys like Chandler Parsons and Evan Turner. And good for them! But no doubt more players this season will have to play somewhere they don’t want and take smaller deals in anticipation for next summer because guys like Turner and Parsons got massive deals.

I also wonder if the talk about the summer of 2019 is a bit trumped-up. Sure, a lot of big guys will come on the market and they will get their contracts. But they were always going to get their contracts, whether it was this year or next. The real goal of the NBPA is to have a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s possible that teams will remember the sting of 2016 and be more reticent to spend big money on role players the way they did that season when next summer comes around.

The Blazers are drowning

I wrote about how the Blazers refusing to re-sign Ed Davis was perhaps an indicator that GM Neil Olshey was going to make a few drastic moves. They have already taken to a couple of the options I suggested, including signing Jusuf Nurkic to a $12 million per-season contract. They have also used up a bit of their mid-level exception, so all that is left from my proposed offseason plan is to utilize their trade exception from Allen Crabbe.

That trade exception expires at the end of July, and it’s unclear whether Portland will be able to find someone good enough to use that exception on. There has been lots of talk in Portland about Damian Lillard perhaps wanting to force his way out of Rip City, which I think is nonsense. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Lillard is getting a bit frustrated. He has already had a talk with owner Paul Allen, and moving forward it seems like Olshey needs to find some kind of solution, and quick.

I don’t think that Lillard sees losing to the Warriors as that much of an issue. More realistically, it’s the idea of not having a good enough team to take on the Warriors and at least have a chance. That’s why joining the Lakers or playing for the New York Knicks, both terrible teams, doesn’t make sense for Lillard. Olshey needs to show he’s at least trying, and not playing it smooth and safe in the face of free agent failure. Even if it’s another Evan Turner-like gamble, that exception needs to get used by Olshey. If he doesn’t, he might be on his way out of Portland either way.

Carmelo Anthony is leaving the Thunder

Carmelo Anthony was a prolific scorer during his time in Denver. And, for two seasons in New York, he was an efficient power forward. That was his true position. But last year in Oklahoma City, it was apparent that Carmelo was unwilling to play his correct position. He also wasn’t going to come off the bench, and the results were predictable.

Anthony held the ball, killing valuable Thunder possessions while ending up with a negative VORP for the season. Him finding a way off the Oklahoma City roster is good news for both parties, since Anthony will likely get most of his money and the Thunder will be able to avoid some luxury tax considerations.

Now the question is where Anthony will land, with two obvious solutions being the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. Adding Anthony to the Lakers would be in line with their offseason plans of adding every bad, weird, former star player that still is active in the NBA. If he joins Rockets, it’s a rejoining of Anthony with former coach Mike D’Antoni, who will butt heads with him once again as they tried to get him to run within the Rockets system.

No doubt many Houston fans are convincing themselves this very instant that Anthony would be perfect when the Rockets turn to isolation.

“He can be a great pick-and-roll man with either Paul or Harden!”

“He’s an iso player! He’s perfect!”

Houston’s isolation system doesn’t rely on one player to simply score in isolation. Their iso sets are more about getting switches, finding mismatches, then putting players in a position to score off the ball from that isolation as a backup plan. Anthony is the other kind of isolation player, one who does not pass out of those possessions and who will create a dip in efficiency while doing so.

Who knows where Anthony ends up, but just about every rumored landing spot is pure comedy.

Do you have a question about the NBA you need answered? Our PBT Mailbag publishes on Wednesdays, so send your question to have it answered by our team of NBA experts. E-mail us at: pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Getty Images
Leave a comment

When Rudy Gobert went down with his second knee injury of the season — both times because someone else went crashing into his legs — it was thought his chance to win Defensive Player of the Year was lost. Would he play in enough games to be considered?

But with Kawhi Leonard out most of the season, and Andre Roberson playing only 39 games, and Draymond Green not playing at his peak (before the playoffs) the award became more of a race between Gobert and Joel Embiid, two of the best shot-blocking big men in the game. Between them, the number of games played was similar, so it became about the defense itself.

Monday night in Los Angeles, the award was presented to the brightly-dressed Gobert.

It was more than his 2.3 blocks per game that won him the award, when Gobert was on the court this season the Jazz allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions (7.3 points better than when he was on the bench). Gobert lifted up his team on defense.

Gobert had 89 first place votes of the 101 cast by select media members, and he won the award by a wade margin. After that the order of finish (with first place votes) is Joel Embiid (2), Anthony Davis (5), Paul George (2), Anthony Davis (1), Draymond Green (1), and Jrue Holiday (1).