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Five things we’ve learned through four days of free agency

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In the free agency of 2018 players were grabbing the bag. Fast.

Ordinarily free agency — especially for the big names — plays out over the first week of July as players meet with various teams, try to play teams off one another, and push for the best offer out there. Not in 2018. Not with most teams cash-strapped (only nine teams had more than $10 million in pure cap space to spend signing free agents before free agency). Knowing the market was tight, players grabbed the deal in front of them. Fast.

What did we learn from the first four days of free agency? Here are the five big takeaways.

1) Everyone — players and teams — are focused on 2019. As of this writing, there have been 52 contracts handed out to NBA players this free agency period — 29 of them (56 percent) have been one-year deals, or contacts with an opt-out after one year (stat courtesy Marc Stein). For comparison, the previous couple of years about 30 percent of contracts were one-year deals. This year’s the list of short deals includes big names such as DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors, as well as the more expected ones, such as Raymond Felton staying with the Thunder.

Why? Money. As mentioned in the intro above, not a lot of teams had money to spend on free agents — the majority of teams were over the cap and/or into the luxury tax, many didn’t even have the full mid-level exception to offer. That changes next summer when many of the contracts signed during the drunken sailor spending spree of 2016 (when the cap spiked) come off the books.

The end result is players are reading the marketplace, then taking one-year deals to get back into free agency when there is more money out there. Cousins did it. Derrick Favors did it with Utah. Tyreke Evans did it. Rajon Rondo. The list goes on and on.

Teams also are biding their time, looking to make a splash in 2019 rather than in this market. Teams are trying to avoid long-term contracts that impact next year’s cap space.

One caveat now for 2019 — the market is going to be saturated. There always will be money to pay the top guys (Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, etc.), and in 2019 that money will trickle down couple tiers below those guys, but there is not going to be enough big money for everyone. Some players who think they are going to get paid next summer will be disappointed.

2) The Lakers won free agency by getting LeBron James, but they are focused on 2019, too. LeBron wasted no time making his call — no formal meeting with the Cavaliers, his agent had a perfunctory one with the 76ers basically just to let them know he wasn’t coming, and that was it. Before free agency was 24 hours old LeBron had made his call and let the world know — he was going to the Lakers.

More than just that, he signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, showing Magic Johnson and company the kind of trust he showed Pat Riley in Miami but never gave to Dan Gilbert or anyone in Cleveland.

With that trust, the Lakers are not overpaying to win now. They have ignored the line thinking that with LeBron at age 33 they can’t spend a year building and must win immediately. Talks to trade for Kawhi Leonard cooled, and the Lakers didn’t throw their remaining cap space at long-term deals for the best players available. Los Angeles didn’t even keep Julius Randle. The roster the Lakers have put together for the 2018-19 season coming up — the young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, plus now veterans (and interesting personalities) Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee — will be good, it’s a playoff team, but it’s no threat to Golden State or Houston. Even with the greatness of LeBron, this is a team that will hover around 50 wins in a brutally deep Western Conference, and at best make the second round of the playoffs.

The focus is on getting another superstar, another All-NBA level player. Maybe Leonard, via trade or as a free agent next summer. Maybe another star free agent they can sign into cap space (Jimmy Butler or Klay Thompson). Maybe another star unexpectedly becomes available via trade. Maybe a lot of things, but the Lakers have prized flexibility above all, the ability to sign guys or make deals. They want to contend for titles, but they — with LeBron’s blessing — are thinking a season or two down the line. As part of that plan, they want to get LeBron working off the ball more.

3) Yes, the Golden State Warriors got better, but it was more than DeMarcus Cousins that fell their way. The Golden State Warriors got better this summer. No doubt. Not in the “they formed the Death Star” kind of way that NBA Twitter freaked out about, but Cousins — despite his expected mid-season return and being less than 100 percent, lethargic defense, ball-stopping offense in the post — is an upgrade over JaVale McGee or Zaza Pachulia. Cousins will hit some threes, make some passes, and fit in as best he can in the Warriors’ system.

However, the list of things that have given the Warriors a better shot at a title now goes way beyond just Cousins. For one, the only team that was a real threat to them last playoffs, the Houston Rockets, got a little bit worse when Trevor Ariza took Phoenix’s cash. LeBron James came to the West on a team that is not yet a threat. The Spurs are dragging their feet on the Kawhi Leonard situation, keeping on the bench a player who (if healthy) could help form a contender somewhere. The list goes on. Things have gone right for the Warriors this offseason, but it is more than signing a guy coming off a torn Achilles.

4) Restricted free agents have been left hanging. Clint Capela should have some team offering him a max or near max contract to try to poach him from Houston. Marcus Smart has no offers yet. Nor does Jabari Parker. Or Zach LaVine. Or Jusuf Nurkic. Or Kyle Anderson. Or Rodney Hood.

In a tight financial market, teams have spent on the guys they could get rather than tie up their cap space for a few days trying to snag one of the NBA’s restricted free agents. Remember, these are the guys where the team they played for has the right to match any contract. In the case of Capela, Houston GM Daryl Morey has made it abundantly clear he would match any offer and that has scared off potential suitors. In the case of Parker or LaVine, injury concerns have teams hesitant to jump in with the level of commitment it would take to scare off the Bucks or Bulls. And so on and so on down the list.

The bad news for these restricted free agents is there are not a lot of teams with money left — Sacramento, Atlanta, a few others — and those teams are not looking to spend a lot and win more right away. Those teams are more likely to take on a bad contract for a future asset than overpay to try to steal a player away. The options for the restricted free agents are not getting any better. Expect a few to play for the qualifying offer then become free agents next summer (see item No. 1 on this list).

5) Oklahoma City got the band back together, but they are going to pay a lot to do it. The number is staggering — $300 million. The Thunder got their man — Paul George will be back on a new max contract. As expected, Carmelo Anthony opted in to his $28.7 million. Jerami Grant will return and sign a three-year, $27 million contract. Combine all that with Russell Westbrook‘s max contract that kicks in, plus the repeater tax, and the Thunder are lined up to pay the largest salary plus tax bill in NBA history. That $300 million bill would make the Lakers or Knicks blush.

Is it worth it to run back a 48-win team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs?

In OKC, they know that in the past nine months two stars have chosen them, chosen to stay in their market over going to Los Angeles or New York or wherever. That’s a big win. This team believes it was better than it showed down the stretch and into the playoffs. Ownership says its worth whatever price and they will pay it for a year.

Around the league, other teams expect the Thunder to make a couple of cost-savings moves. Just something to keep an eye on.

Report: Nerlens Noel signing 1+1 contract with Thunder

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LeBron James and Nerlens Noel reportedly discussed teaming up with the Lakers.

LeBron did his part.

But Noel is headed elsewhere.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post:

Giving Noel a player option next year rather than signing someone to the one-year minimum, based on their current roster, will cost the Thunder an extra $1,775,001 this season – $244,828 in salary and $1,530,173 in luxury tax. Noel will count at the five-years-experience minimum salary rather than the two-years-experience minimum salary for most players on one-year minimum contracts. Oklahoma City has until the final day of the regular season to lower its payroll and reduced its repeater-luxury-tax bill, though.

The Thunder City needed a backup center behind stalwart Steven Adams. Jerami Grantwho agreed to re-sign – is a creative option at times, but he’s not big enough for every matchup. Dakari Johnson is unproven at best.

Noel’s stock has hit rock bottom, but he’s just 24 and still has the agility and length to become a versatile defender. His offensive role should be narrow, but he works as a pick-and-roll and rebounding specialist. Perhaps, he takes to Oklahoma City’s culture and improves his work ethic and image.

Noel certainly wants to hit the market again next summer. The Thunder wanted his talent in their system – to the point they’re paying relatively big to allow him the flexibility to become a free agent next summer.

With Jerami Grant and Paul George re-signing, Thunder on track for record $150 million-plus luxury-tax bill

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The Thunder infamously traded James Harden, at least in part, to dodge the luxury tax.

Oklahoma City doesn’t appear to be worried about spending big any longer.

In addition to agreeing to re-sign Paul George to a max contract, the Thunder are also bringing back Jerami Grant on a lucrative deal.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Based on those terms, Grant’s salary next season will be between $8,333,333 and $9,782,609. Let’s assume it’s on the low end (most likely). Let’s also assume the Thunder sign their three second-round picks to minimum contracts and sign one more veteran (maybe re-signing Raymond Felton, though the specific player doesn’t matter here) to a minimum contract.

Oklahoma City would be in line for a $150,152,424 luxury-tax bill!

The largest luxury tax paid in NBA history was $90,570,781 by the 2014 Nets. That looks paltry next to the Thunder’s slated amount.

However, the luxury tax isn’t assessed until the final day of the regular season. The Thunder have plenty of time to trim salary. They can stretch Kyle Singler, trade Patrick Patterson or even move bigger names like Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams.

Or suck it up and pay big to maximize Russell Westbrook‘s supporting cast.

Thunder GM “encouraged” after talks with Paul George; also discusses Westbrook, Anthony

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have a lot of questions heading into this summer. We know the answer to one of them: Billy Donovan will be back as coach. Another is not official, but we know it’s happening: Carmelo Anthony is going to opt into his $28 million contract for next season.

However, the most significant question will hang out there until early July: Will Paul George return?

Thunder GM Sam Presti addressed that in his end-of-season press conference Wednesday.

Is that relationship enough? George genuinely has enjoyed his time and experience in Oklahoma City, but does that outweigh the desire to go to Los Angeles and the place he calls home? Will how the playoffs ended in the first round — with Russell Westbrook dominating the ball and George struggling much of the series — factor into his decision? Only one person has that answer, and right now he’s not saying much.

Presti also discussed Carmelo Anthony and his post-season press conference where Anthony said he wouldn’t come off the bench and had to get back to playing his way.

‘Melo is going to opt into that $28 million, which makes him almost impossible to trade. He’s also not going to take a discount to facilitate a buyout. That’s going to lead to an interesting offseason — it became clear in the playoffs the Thunder were better defensively, and on both ends, with Jerami Grant on the court. With Anthony in the starting five in the playoffs (Westbrook, George, Steven Adams, and Corey Brewer) the Thunder were outscored by 7.6 points per 100 possessions. Substitute Grant into that lineup for Anthony, and the Thunder outscored teams by 10.6 per 100 (small sample size alert in both cases).

Anthony would be best suited at this point, with his skills where they are, in a sixth man role. He doesn’t want that. Which means things are going to get interesting.

As for Westbrook…

Which means him working more off the ball. That would be a good start to adding some diversity to the OKC attack.

 

Thunder clinch playoff spot by running past Heat 115-93

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MIAMI (AP) — Paul George scored 27 points, Russell Westbrook got his 25th triple-double of the season and the Oklahoma City Thunder clinched a playoff spot with a 115-93 win over the Miami Heat on Monday night.

Westbrook finished with 23 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists for the Thunder, who were down 18 in the opening minutes before outscoring the Heat 39-12 in the fourth.

The 27-point margin was the third-worst for any quarter in Heat history, and the worst ever in a game at Miami.

Jerami Grant scored 17 points and Carmelo Anthony added 11 for Oklahoma City, which made 14 3-pointers.

Josh Richardson scored 18 points and Hassan Whiteside added 16 for the Heat, whose playoff seed won’t be decided until the season-finales Wednesday. Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson each scored 12 for Miami, and James Johnson added 11.

For George, it was a rare win in Miami – his Indiana teams were 2-18 overall and 0-10 in regular-season contests when he faced the Heat on the road.

Westbrook needs 16 rebounds in the Thunder finale Wednesday to average a triple-double for the second straight season.

The Thunder missed their first 10 shots, gave up the game’s first 12 points and wound up trailing by 18 during the opening quarter. They eventually settled in and got the deficit down to single-digits late in the first.

And from there, it stayed that way.

Miami’s lead was down to three by halftime, and Oklahoma City tied the game twice in the third quarter – only to have the Heat immediately answer with bursts, first an 8-0 spurt after the initial tie, then a 5-0 run to take an 81-76 lead into the fourth.

Corey Brewer‘s driving layup with 10:28 left put the Thunder on top for the first time all night, 85-84. Before long, it became a runaway.