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Report: Chris Paul increasingly expected to start season with Thunder

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Last week, the Thunder had an expensive point guard who’s into his 30s and didn’t fit a team shifting into rebuilding without Paul George.

Same story now.

Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul to acquire draft picks and shed long-term salary. Getting Paul as a player was of minimal concern. That’s why the Thunder worked with him to flip him. But a team like the Heat wanted draft picks just for taking the three years and $124,076,442 remaining on Paul’s contract.

So, Oklahoma City might hold onto Paul, after all.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The 34-year-old Paul is past his prime. But he’s still good. It’d be interesting to see him once again as his team’s best player after he spent so much time stuck in the corner watching James Harden.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams could form the core of a solid team this season. Paul can run an offense, and Adams (pick-and-roll) and Gallinari (pick-and-pop) offer nice complementary skills. If Andre Roberson is healthy or if a young player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nerlens Noel, Terrence Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo takes the next step, Oklahoma City could make real noise.

The Thunder’s biggest challenge: They play in the loaded Western Conference. That makes it far more difficult to make the playoffs. But in terms of team quality, Oklahoma City could be in the thick of competitiveness.

If Paul and Gallinari stay healthy. That can’t be assumed, though Adams can do some dirty work to keep those two clean.

The Thunder have tremendous draft capital – so much of which is tied to the fates of the Clippers, Rockets, Heat and Nuggets. Oklahoma City could tank and improve its draft position further and sooner. But owning so many picks from other teams allows the Thunder to try to win now while simultaneously rebuilding. They don’t necessarily have to waste seasons in the basement just to build themselves back up.

It will probably be easier to trade Paul on Dec. 15. That’s when most free agents who signed this summer become eligible to be traded. Right now, too many teams have untradable players, making it difficult to match Paul’s high salary. Generally, the more of Paul’s contract the Thunder pay out, the easier it’ll be to trade him.

But if Paul declines sharply or gets hurt, his value could diminish even further. There’s risk in waiting, though an injured Paul might allow Oklahoma City to tank anyway.

The Thunder must also cut a few million of salary before the final day of the regular season to avoid the luxury tax. That’s a priority.

So, Oklahoma City will make some move – Paul or otherwise.

But it appears likely we’ll see Paul play for the Thunder. It’ll be a return to Oklahoma City after he played home games there with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets following Hurricane Katrina.

This isn’t the reunion Paul or the Thunder appeared to desire when the Westbrook trade was agreed upon. I still think it could be pretty cool.

Cavaliers’ Kevin Porter Jr. takes discount on rookie-scale contract

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The Cavaliers paid a record $5 million (and four second-round picks) to get No. 30 pick Kevin Porter Jr. from the Pistons.

Cleveland will recoup some of that money on Porter’s salary.

NBA first-round picks have a contract scale with set salaries on a four-year deal that includes two team options and provisions for restricted free agency afterward. There’s limited flexibility on those-rookie scale contracts. Teams can pay 80%-120% of scale each season. In practice, players nearly always get 120% of scale. The last player I remember getting less than 120% of scale was Andre Roberson with the Thunder in 2013.

Until Porter.

Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights:

I wouldn’t be surprised if Porter agreed on draft night to take below scale. He was slipping in the draft, and even a reduced rookie-scale deal would have guaranteed more money than he’d get as a second-rounder. In the second round, he likely would have received the minimum or slightly more.

Now, Porter will earn $645,480 less than the standard 120% of scale would have paid next season. But that’s still $392,650 more than the minimum.

He’s also guaranteed $515,179 more than the minimum next season. If his team options get exercised, he’ll get $347,619 and $1,914,402 above the minimum.

Here were Porter’s contract possibilities in a four-year deal – the typical 120% of scale, what he actually got and the minimum:

Contract 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22 2022-23
120% scale $1,936,440 $2,033,160 $2,130,240 $3,845,083
Actual $1,290,960 $2,033,160 $2,130,240 $3,845,083
Minimum $898,310 $1,517,981 $1,782,621 $1,930,681

Porter is now locked in for four seasons. If he signed as a second-round pick or undrafted free agent, he could have inked a shorter deal and hit free agency sooner.

Essentially, if he had a say in Cleveland picking him, Porter bet against himself.

But he gets more guaranteed money and security this way. He also would’ve gotten to choose the Cavs. There’s value in that.

The Cavaliers get a little more breathing room with the luxury tax. They’re right up against it.

They also might be trendsetters. First-round picks were ridiculously underpaid as the new national TV contracts sent the salary cap skyrocketing. Now, the Collective Bargaining has tied the rookie scale to the salary cap and phased in salary increases for first-round picks, culminating with this year’s scale.

So, first-round picks are now being paid more reasonable salaries. In this environment, teams might negotiate the scale amounts more often.

Report: After talking to him, Thunder open to trading Russell Westbrook

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When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant in 2016, the popular sentiment was they’d have to trade Russell Westbrook. Instead, Westbrook signed an extension with Oklahoma City and threw himself into leading the small-market franchise.

Now, with the Thunder trading Paul George to the Clippers for a package centered on draft picks, Westbrook’s future in Oklahoma City has again become a major topic of conversation.

This time, it doesn’t sound as if Westbrook will recommit to the Thunder.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Trading Westbrook won’t be easy. He’s due $171,139,920 over the next four years. Westbrook is also 30, reliant on his athleticism and already showing signs of decline.

But Westbrook remains a star and a big name. It takes only one team to covet him.

A team already stuck in a difficult situations – like the Heat, Pistons, Magic, Wizards or Hornets – could pool bad contracts to deal for Westbrook. He’d provide at least a short term jolt.

How much does Oklahoma City want for Westbrook, though? Given his age and salary concerns, would the Thunder just give him away if they could? Or are they holding out for at least some positive return?

Oklahoma City could still try to compete around Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Andre Roberson (if healthy). That’s a decent team with at least a chance of making the playoffs.

But as they trade George and Jerami Grant for draft picks, the Thunder are clearly headed in a different direction. Westbrook is apparently ready to spend the rest of his prime elsewhere rather than stick out a rebuild.

Report: Thunder trading Jerami Grant to Nuggets for first-rounder

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Raise the alert level on the Thunder trading Russell Westbrook.

This doesn’t prove anything about Westbrook. It doesn’t match the significance of Oklahoma City shipping Paul George to the Clippers.

But the Thunder are moving ahead in a teardown by trading Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a draft pick.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Grant (due $9,346,153 next season and holding a player option for the same salary the following year) was too expensive for Oklahoma City’s liking. It’s impossible to evaluate the trade fully without knowing the protections, but getting a first-rounder looks nice for the Thunder given where they are in team-building.

Considering Oklahoma City must replace Grant on the roster and projecting that to be with a minimum-salary free agent, this trade puts the Thunder in line to save $29,710,941 in salary and luxury tax next season. The tax isn’t assessed until the final day of the regular season, so there’s plenty of time for that number to change.

The Thunder are now just $3,695,790 into the tax (counting that minimum-salary free agent), and they face the repeater rate. I’d be shocked if they don’t avoid the tax entirely.

Oklahoma City’s spending limitations are Denver’s gains.

Grant can play all three frontcourt positions. He gives the Nuggets someone capable of defending bigger wings now and maybe replacing Paul Millsap as starting power forward down the road. Both are important as Denver looks to continue its ascension around Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

The 25-year-old Grant has been up-and-down 3-point shooter in his career, but he has generally trended in the right direction. He made a career-high 39% of his 3s last season. If he maintains that, this will be an excellent addition. If not, the Nuggets will still welcome his defensive versatility and overall activity.

Denver has sat on the mid-level exception despite having the ability to use it in full and remain out of the tax. The Nuggets will use a trade exception to acquire Grant, leaving the mid-level exception available. But using it now would push Denver into the tax. Would ownership greenlight that?

The Nuggets are one of several teams that should believe they have a chance to win a title next season. Star talent is dispersed. This should be the time to spend, though the market for free agents worth the mid-level exception is shrinking fast.

One team no longer in the championship chase: Oklahoma City. The Thunder can can remain competitive with Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari (who’ll take Grant’s spot at starting power forward), Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Andre Roberson (if healthy). But if immediate competitiveness were the goal, the Thunder wouldn’t have traded Grant for a draft pick. They clearly have other aims.

Utah’s Dante Exum can’t catch break, done for season with torn patellar tendon

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The basketball gods have not been kind to Dante Exum. After playing a full 82 games his rookie season, injuries have limited him to playing in just 37 percent of the possible games since. That includes a torn ACL in his left knee in 2015 and missing time last season with shoulder surgery, not to mention getting in just 42 games this season.

Now he is done for the season again with a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee, the Jazz announced Friday. Exum will seek opinions on how to best treat the injury, according to the team.

The patellar tendon ligament connects the bottom of the kneecap to the shin. Put simply, you need it to run and jump, two things kind of important to play basketball.

Recovery times on patellar tendon injuries vary, but the Thunder’s Andre Roberson has missed this entire season because of one. Some players return more quickly, your mileage may vary.

This is a real blow to  Exum and the Jazz. The franchise gambled on him last summer signing him to a three-year contract, and he has $19.2 million fully guaranteed over the two seasons after this one.