Danilo Gallinari

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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.

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.

Winners and Losers in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George choosing to play with Clippers

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Forget that little bit of shaking in Las Vegas, this was the earthquake that shook the NBA Friday night:

Kawhi Leonard chose the Clippers and convinced Paul George to force the Thunder to trade him to Los Angeles as well. They formed their own superteam just down the hall from LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and the Clippers have a far better supporting cast. The rivalry is on in Los Angeles.

Who won and who lost in the big moves? Let’s break it all down.

First, one quick note: The Toronto Raptors are not on the list below. After this I can’t exactly call them winners, they just lost the best basketball player walking the face of the Earth and got nothing back. However, they aren’t losers, either — they won an NBA title with him. This was the gamble team president Masai Ujiri made: They could do everything right and still lose Leonard. That’s exactly what happened, and now they likely start down a path retooling around Pascal Siakam. But losers? They took a chance and won a title, that’s still the biggest win in the NBA.

Winner: Kawhi Leonard

Remember when we thought Leonard was just a basketball-playing robot devoid of human emotions or ambition outside of winning titles? A player custom-designed for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. That seems a very, very long time ago now.

Leonard has taken charge of everything. On the court in these playoffs, he staked his claim as the best player in the world, leading Toronto to a title.

Now he’s taken charge of his career off the court in an “I’m a superstar and I can do what I want” kind of way. He forced his way out of San Antonio. After a season in Toronto, he tried to recruit Kevin Durant to join him on the Clippers (but KD, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan were already all but headed to Brooklyn). So Leonard convinced Paul George to go into the Thunder offices, a year after he signed a max contract to stay there, and demand a trade to the Clippers. Then Leonard told the Clippers he would only sign with them if they landed George.

That is a superstar getting what he wants. That’s a winner.

Winner: Los Angeles Clippers

This win isn’t just about being title contenders, although the Clippers are certainly that now. This is a win about perception for the Clippers.

Talk to a basketball fan over age 28 about the Clippers and the images that come to mind are Donald Sterling’s comments and racism, drafting Michael Olowokandi, and Elgin Baylor as a caretaker GM not spending money. This was the organization that Lamar Odom begged not to bring him back.

That is not these Clippers. It hasn’t been for a while, but it takes time for perceptions to change. Ask a 24-year-old, fifth-year NBA player what he knows of the Clippers and he will say they make the playoffs every year, have a coach in Doc Rivers everyone wants to play for, they used to be Lob City, last season they had a scrappy team that looked like fun to play on, they have the logo in the front office, and they have an owner in Steve Ballmer worth $50 billion and he’s not afraid to spend it. The Clippers of recent years have been one of the best-run organizations in the NBA.

Now everyone will see that because they are contenders.

Loser: Los Angles Lakers

The Lakers — and Los Angeles as a city on some level — are a star-driven culture. Showtime was Magic and Kareem and Worthy. Then came Shaq and Kobe. Then Kobe and Pau (although Gasol was never quite pure Los Angeles in terms of showmanship and brand). It is in the franchise’s DNA to chase stars.

So there really wasn’t a choice for Laker GM Rob Pelika and company: Chase Leonard as their third star. Sure, there were risks, but they had to do it — and it was the right move. They came close to landing Leonard and having the greatest “big three” the NBA had ever seen.

But the nearly six days it took for Leonard to make his call — he was basically stalling for time so the Clippers could pull off the George trade, but he needed the leverage to get the Clippers to go all-in — left Los Angels with a much weaker field of rotation players to add to the roster. Guys who had been likely targets such as J.J. Redick, Trevor Ariza, Brook Lopez, Patrick Beverley, and more were off the board. The Lakers did well to land Danny Green, and DeMarcus Cousins can play a role, but the pickings got slim on the Lakers. Pelinka still has a lot of work to do on this roster if they are going to be a serious title threat.

Winner: NBA Fans: There is no superteam

This is Adam Silver’s favorite thing about the trade.

There are right now, by my (maybe conservative) estimate, eight NBA teams who can go into next season with the thought they have a shot at an NBA title. That is as close to parity as the NBA will ever get. The race is wide open. If Leonard had chosen the Lakers the NBA would have been back to the start of the last two seasons, just with Los Angeles taking Golden State’s place — there was one dominant team to beat and it was going to take a lot of things to go right to knock them off. Now, we get to see how team chemistry, healthy, and a plethora of other factors play into an open race, rather than seeing if some team can shock the world.

Loser: Russell Westbrook

This isn’t a “he’s a bad teammate” rant, in part because there are plenty of guys who would like to play with Westbrook, and in part because Paul George said that’s not the issue.

Instead, Westbrook is a loser because his world just got turned upside down. Westbrook thought he had a true partner in crime, but his man ran off to Los Angeles with some guy who has cornrows driving a 1997 Chevy Tahoe. The Thunder, as constructed, will be a borderline playoff team in the West. That means another year of Westbrook against the world, or the Thunder trade him, too. Which is likely the path everyone decides to go down, but finding a good team to take on the four years, nearly $170 million still on Westbrook’s contract (counting his option year) is not going to be easy.

Winner: Thunder GM Sam Presti

One year ago, Presti was validated. Oklahoma City had gambled on trading for Paul George when the people around the star tried to warn everyone off because he wanted to be a Laker, but after a year in OKC George signed up for four more.

This week, George walked into Presti’s office and demanded a trade to the Clippers. It was a punch to the gut on a lot of levels, a blow to the culture the Thunder thought they had built.

Presti recovered and got a haul equal to what the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis. OKC receives Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (second-team All-Rookie and a promising player), Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks (the Clippers first-round pick unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick and Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick) plus the right to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025.

Whatever direction the Thunder go now, they have a lot of assets and options.

Winner: Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers

Kawhi Leonard is out of the East and now the path to the Finals just got a whole lot easier. The Bucks and 76ers are two clear favorites to come out of the conference, and one fewer hurdle stands in their way.

Now what for Thunder? Trading Russell Westbrook could be on the table, reportedly

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One year ago, the NBA world was celebrating the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Small market OKC had gambled on trading for Paul George when his people had warned everyone he wanted to go to Southern California. Then, after one season next to Russell Westbrook, George signed up for four more. He was staying, the Thunder had their two stars and were relevant again. Oklahoma City had won.

One year later, just earlier this week, George’s agent Aaron Mintz walked into the office of team president Sam Presti and demanded a trade. Specifically to the Los Angeles Clippers. George wanted to go home after all and now team up with his friend Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder were flat-out blindsided by the request. George denied this was about issues between him and Westbrook (despite some rumors of disenfranchisement between the two).

Whatever the reason he asked out, the Thunder had no choice but to comply, a season with an unhappy George moping around would be bad for everybody.

Presti played the Clippers off the Raptors and got a serious haul: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who the Clippers are very high on), Danilo Gallinari, and five first-round picks (the Clippers first-round pick unprotected in 2022, 2024 and 2026, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick and Miami’s lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick, plus the right to swap picks in 2023 and 2025).

The question facing the Thunder is now what?

They are already a team $16.2 million into the luxury tax, something ownership would pay to stay in a title chase in the wide-open West. But now?

Do they try to stay relevant, watch Russell Westbrook chase another triple-double season, and count on Steven Adams, Gallinari, and the rest of the role players can push them into the playoffs again? The Thunder, as currently constructed, are not a bad team. Yet, even if they make the postseason, after two straight years of first-round eliminations is the goal a third one of those, the most likely outcome for this roster in a very deep West?

Or, do they think about trading Russell Westbrook and hitting the reset button?

Westbrook and his agent sat down with Presti to talk about all of that already, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Oklahoma City’s All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and his agent, Thad Foucher, are engaged with Thunder GM Sam Presti about the next steps of Westbrook’s career, including the possibility of a trade prior to the start of next season, league sources told ESPN.

The two sides have 11 years of history together and both understand that the time has likely come to explore trade possibilities for Westbrook, league sources tell ESPN.

Wojnarowski says the chance of the retooling of the roster, as was done after Kevin Durant left, is “unlikely.”

Trading Westbrook, especially before next season, is much easier said than done.

Westbrook is owed $38.2 million this season and then $41 million in 2020-21, $43.9 million in 2021-22, and a player option for $46.7 million in 2022-23. Or, 169.8 million over the next four years taking him out to age 35, assuming he picks up his option year (which is a safe assumption).

Throw in his ball-dominant style that has frustrated some teammates in the past and not every organization is going to want to get in on the Westbrook sweepstakes. That said, next summer is a weak free agent class and there will be teams that will have cap space them but decide it’s worth it to take on that salary now to land a superstar.

Whatever happens with the Thunder, Presti and company will not be rushed into a poor decision. There will be no immediate action in reaction to George demanding a trade. Presti is too smart for that.

But keep an eye on the Thunder as we move through the summer. Westbrook is on the market now.