Kyrie Irving

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Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ 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.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperate was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A

Kobe Bryant on best NBA duo: “I think it matters what they put around those two guys”

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James Harden and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Eventually there will be Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

The NBA is stacked with elite duos that are NBA contenders, and figuring out which twosome will fit best together has become part of making a prediction for who will win the NBA title.

Kobe Bryant was asked that in an interview by ESPN and he went another direction (hat tip Hoop Rumors).

“It doesn’t matter. I think it matters what they put around those two guys, and then what is the offensive and defensive system they’re going to be executing. You could have marquee names and put those marquee names together, and guess if they could play together or not, but it ultimately comes down to what system do you have them in and how does that affect the rest of the guys.”

He’s right. The Warriors had a big three but do they win without Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, solid bigs, and everyone there buying into Steve Kerr’s system? LeBron and Irving in Cleveland needed Kevin Love and J.R. Smith (pre-meltdown mistake) to win in 2016. The big three of LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh had Ray Allen and other guys to hit big shots, plus they lost before they all bought into Eric Spoelstra’s system. The Spurs won five rings with Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili but always were the ultimate system team under Gregg Popovich.

It’s why a lot of pundits lean toward the Clippers when looking at the coming season — this was a 48-win, hard-to-play-against team well coached by Doc Rivers last season before Leonard and George showed up. But, will the Clippers be the same team and play with the same passion this season? Do the Lakers have the guard play needed to contend, and can Frank Vogel get them on the same page (can he keep his job)? Do the Rockets have the depth after their starting five? Will any of those teams fully buy into the coach’s system?

What makes this NBA season so fascinating and wide open is that every team has plenty of questions, there is no juggernaut. But next June, we may be talking less about the best duo and more about what Kobe said — which supporting cast and system worked best?

 

NBA sends memo to teams informing of crackdown on tampering, increased fines

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There were a lot frustrated, ticked-off owners and front office staff at July’s for a Board of Governor’s meeting — and tampering was what had blood boiling. Kyrie Irving (Nets), Kemba Walker (Celtics) and Derrick Rose (Pistons) were top free agent names who appeared to have their next teams — and maybe contracts — lined up before free agency officially began. The Celtics complained the 76ers may have tampered with Al Horford, and there were questions about what steps eventually brought Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers.

“It’s pointless, at the end of the day, to have rules that we can’t enforce,” is how NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put it after that meeting.

Now the league is warning teams of a crackdown on tampering — steeply increased fines and tougher enforcement — in a memo to teams that Shams Charania of The Athletic saw.

 

The owners will have to vote on this at their September 20 meeting, Charania reports. Undoubtedly it will pass.

The memo says the crackdown is in response to the “widespread perception that many of the league’s rules are being broken on a frequent basis” about tampering and salary cap issues, according to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press.

It all sounds tough on paper.

The question isn’t the new rules but how they are enforced. To this point, the league has had a hands-off approach to player-to-player conversations and recruiting, how tightly do they want to enforce it now? More importantly, how do they implement it? Take players phones to monitor texts? (Most player conversations are not about “work” or recruiting, it’s about the things you text your friends about.) What about when players go to dinners/clubs together and talk? Spencer Dinwiddie said he started to pitch the idea of Irving coming to the Nets in a business class the two took together, how exactly does the league learn about this and stop it?

Most front offices and agents do a very good job of plausible deniability — there are not traceable emails or texts making tampering challenging to prove. Things are not done formally, it’s through back channels and casual conversations. The league is talking tough, but enforcement is going to be another issue.

Anthony Davis: LeBron James wants me to be Lakers’ focal point

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As many star teammates as LeBron James has had, he has always transcended them.

LeBron led Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to the Heat’s titles. LeBron led Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to the Cavaliers’ title.

But could it be different with Anthony Davis on the Lakers?

Davis, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

“I’ve kind of been a focal-point player my whole career, especially in New Orleans. But first off, to have a guy like LeBron, someone of his caliber, go tell management and ownership and the coaches that he wants me to be the focal point is an honor,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I know what comes with that, and that’s a lot of heavy lifting. I want to be able to do that. I think I have the capabilities of doing that. And obviously with the team’s support, it’s going to be a lot easier on me. We have a great team.”

I’ll believe it when I see it.

LeBron said he planned to hand the keys to the Cavaliers to Irving then never did. Irving played second fiddle until getting tired of waiting and requested a trade.

Last summer, LeBron put out word about wanting to play off the ball. The Lakers pitched him on that. But when the season came around, he was his usual ball-dominant self.

Even at age 34, LeBron is at his best with the ball in his hands. He knows it. Everyone knows it. It’s hard to surrender control to a lesser option.

Davis is far better than LeBron’s supporting cast last year. Davis has improved as a distributor, making it more effective to run the offense through him.

But Davis is still more of a finisher than creator. LeBron could do wonders setting him up. Especially if LeBron starts at point guard, everything falls into place for LeBron to have the ball. Then what? Will he really give it up enough for Davis to be considered the focal point?

I believe LeBron thinks that will happen, just as I believe LeBron thought he’d relinquish control to Irving or last year’s other Lakers. But when push comes to shove, two things happen – LeBron wants to win, and LeBron wants to play how he’s comfortable. Both lead to him taking control of the offense.

Maybe it’ll truly be different with Davis. The older LeBron gets, the more it makes sense for him to defer. Yet, there’s a lot of precedent to overcome.

The stakes are high. Davis sounds excited about being the focal point, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he dislikes his role, not could the Lakers face turbulence during a potential championship season, Davis could leave them outright.

Nets have it all – stars, youth, picks and a chance at a title… in 2021

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NBC Sports’ 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 Nets had nothing.

Now, they have everything.

At least on paper.

Not long ago, Brooklyn was lousy, old, deep into the luxury tax and without its own first-round pick for years to come. Several lost seasons obviously loomed.

But the Nets made the most of those losing years. They drafted well with their limited picks, acquired more where they could and identified players off the scrap heap. Importantly, they instilled a culture of hard work and development.

The rise was slow, but given the circumstances, quicker than expected. Brooklyn made the playoffs last season.

The Nets parlayed that moderate success into a monumental offseason, luring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. Those stars vault Brooklyn onto a whole new level. It’ll probably take until 2020-21 when Durant recovers from his torn Achilles, but the Nets are primed to enter the thick of the championship chase.

Most teams must strip their roster to spare parts to open the cap space for two max players. Remarkably, Brooklyn didn’t.

The Nets still have a huge chunk of the young players who helped establish the culture that attracted Durant and Irving. Caris LeVert (No. 35 on our list of 50 best players in 5 years), Jarrett Allen (No. 44 on our list of 50 best players in 5 years), Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa all return.

Yes, Brooklyn had to part with D'Angelo Russell (No. 28 on our list of 50 best players in 5 years). The Nets also had to surrender two first-rounders in their salary dump of Allen Crabbe.

But that trade with the Hawks also netted Taurean Prince, a solid young forward. Brooklyn got a protected first-rounder from the Warriors, too. With a draft-night trade of the No. 27 pick to the Clippers for an less-protected first-rounder, the Nets are +1(ish) in future first-round picks.

Those young players and picks could be helpful in building a championship-level supporting cast around Durant and Irving. That could be through the players and picks developing or via trade.

In the meantime, Brooklyn enters a limbo year with Durant sidelined. Irving is the clear top player with young teammates around him. That didn’t go so well in Boston. There is a chance the Nets fare worst next season than they did last season, and chemistry would become a huge question amid a backslide.

There are so many new faces down the roster:

Jordan (four years, nearly $40 million) is one of the summer’s worst contracts, though it’s completely justifiable as a cost of getting Durant and Irving. Chandler is already suspended.

Durant is also on the wrong side of 30 and seriously injured. There are legitimate reasons for concern.

But the Nets will gladly take these problems over the ones they were facing just a few years ago. Waiting another year for everything to come together is no problem, either. Brooklyn is still way ahead of schedule.

Offseason grade: A