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Thunder secured Paul George, surprisingly kept spending

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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

Jerami Grant on narrative Russell Westbrook is bad teammate: ‘That’s just ignorant’

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The rumors from some quarters of the web (and swaths of the media) are loud: Russell Westbrook is not a good teammate. It stems from his ball dominate style and stats hunting (at times) on the court, plus the way he pushes those around him, but it branches out to his at times surly attitude off the court. People have blamed Westbrook for Kevin Durant leaving, and Westbrook plays into the narrative.

Jerami Grant is having none of that.

The power forward re-signed with the Thunder this season and stood up tall for Westbrook when speaking to Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype about the rumors Westbrook is a poor teammate.

“That’s just ignorant. I think people just listen to the media [who say that] and believe it, but Russ is a great teammate and a great person. Players obviously want to play with him. PG just re-signed to come back. I just re-signed to come back. I know of a lot of players who want to be in OKC. I think that’s a huge misconception in the media and I don’t know why it’s said. He’s a great player and everyone wants to play with great players because we all want to win. He definitely passes the ball. I’m not really sure what else to say about that. It’s just ignorance.”

Westbrook seems a good person (as much as we can really tell about these players from arm’s length). No doubt he can be a generous teammate.

Playing with him is not for everyone. The same can be said of Kobe, Jordan, Garnett and others — the really driven guys don’t tolerate players not putting in the effort, and they can dominate the ball for long stretches, forcing other players to adjust to them. The game revolves around them. Some players are good with that and know how to play off it, those who want to be with Westbrook in OKC, but there are some who do not.

Durant looked at the joy the Warriors play with — a reflection of Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr — and wanted to be part of that experience. So he bolted. George came in, liked Westbrook and OKC, and is staying. They viewed things differently.

Grant is with Westbrook for a couple of years now, so he better get along with him.

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.