Nerlens Noel

Russell Westbrook scores 21 as Rockets ruin Chris Paul’s return, beat Thunder 116-112

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HOUSTON — James Harden scored 40 points and Russell Westbrook scored 21 and fell an assist shy of a triple-double against his former team, as the Houston Rockets got a 116-112 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.

Westbrook had 12 rebounds and nine assists after notching his 139th triple-double in his last game to pass Magic Johnson for second-most all-time.

A 3-pointer by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 19 seconds left got Oklahoma City within 3. Westbrook made 1 of 2 free throws before fouling Nerlens Noel, who made both free throws.

But Harden, who was 21 of 22 from the line, made two free throws with 13.2 seconds to go to make it 114-110.

Gilgeous-Alexander cut it to 2 with a basket, but Harden made two more free throws to secure the victory.

It was the first game between these teams since a blockbuster summer trade reunited Westbrook with Harden and sent Chris Paul to Oklahoma City after the nine-time All-Star failed to help the Rockets to a title in two seasons in Houston.

Paul had 15 points, four assists and five rebounds.

Just before tipoff, Westbrook approached the Thunder bench and hugged coach Billy Donovan before slapping hands and greeting virtually every player on the bench. Westbrook spent the first 11 years of his career in Oklahoma City where he was the face of the franchise before moving to Houston in the deal the Rockets hope will help bring them their first title since 1995.

Gilgeous-Alexander had 22 points and Dennis Schroder added 22 points to lead the Thunder, who fell to 1-3.

Danilo Gallinari made a 3-pointer to get the Thunder within 4 with about 3 1/2 minutes left, but Westbrook added a jump shot seconds later to push Houston’s lead to 106-100.

Paul hit a 3 for the Thunder after that before a turnover by Westbrook.

Harden made two free throws with about 90 seconds left to leave Houston up 108-103.

Paul added a basket, but Westbrook drove into the lane before kicking it out to P.J. Tucker for a 3 to push the lead to 6 with a minute left.

Houston used a 39-point third quarter to take an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter. Both teams had trouble getting going on offense to start the quarter and the only points either team scored in the first three minutes of the fourth came on two free throws Gallinari at the start of the quarter.

Paul made the first field goal of the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer with just over eight minutes remaining before a layup by Schroder cut the lead to 91-87.

Houston scored its first points of the quarter when Harden made two free throws about a minute later.

The Rockets led by 4 soon after that when Harden was fouled on a 3-pointer and made all three free throws to make it 96-89. That was the start of a 7-4 run that left Houston up 100-93 with five minutes to go.

The Rockets opened the third quarter with a 17-4 run to erase a 10-point halftime deficit and take a 69-66 lead with about seven minutes left in the quarter. A 3-pointer by Tucker put Houston on top and Westbrook punctuated the run with a dunk before screaming and flexing as he passed the Thunder bench.

 

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

Now what for Lakers after DeMarcus Cousins injury?

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“He was going to be a big part of what we’re going to do.”

Laker forward Kyle Kuzma summed it up well when asked about DeMarcus Cousins tearing his ACL during an off-season workout in Las Vegas this week. The Lakers were counting on a bounce-back season from Cousins — for him to play more like the guy from Game 2 of the NBA Finals against Toronto when he was vital to a Warriors win — because it would take some of the burden off of just-acquired Anthony Davis.

Make no mistake, Davis is the best center the Lakers have — he is arguably the best center in the game  (two seasons ago he was the First Team All-NBA center). However, Davis is not built like Joel Embiid and does not want to bang in the post for 30 minutes a night, he wants to play more at the four, face-up, run and space the floor, and play next to a traditional center (then slide to the five in certain situations/lineups, not unlike how the Warriors use Draymond Green at the five).

Cousins was to be that traditional center, and he already had chemistry with Davis from the time they played together in New Orleans.

Now, considering all his body has been through, it’s almost certain Cousins will miss the entire upcoming NBA season.

“I’m devastated for DeMarcus…” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Injuries are a part of the game, but you are talking about a player who has now dealt with the two most feared injuries for NBA players — the Achilles and ACL — each knocking you out for an entire season… It’s unheard of.”

For Cousins, it means another year of hard-work rehab. It’s a grind that will understandably wear on him.

For the Lakers… the options are not pretty.

There is nobody readily available who can provide near the level of production they hoped to get from Cousins.

The Lakers are not going to make Davis play the five more — he does not want to, and while it’s a longshot he leaves as a free agent next summer he still has that leverage and the Lakers want and need to keep him happy.

So who are the Lakers best options? Right now they have JaVale McGee as a traditional center and that’s it. Remember, they also only have a minimum contract to offer.

The name that bounced around as speculation at the Lakers practice facility (where Team USA practiced this week) was Joakim Noah. The veteran played solidly last season in Memphis after New York wanted him out, and with the Grizzlies he played respectable defense while scoring 7.1 points a game on 51.6 percent shooting. Noah also is a good passer and smart player. He would fit with their veteran mindset, if LeBron James signed off on bringing Noah in.

Nene also is available as a free agent, but at age 37 he showed considerable decline the past couple of seasons in Houston. Marcin Gortat is another option here, he showed a decline at age 35 last season, but at this point the Lakers can’t be too picky. If the Lakers want a good pick-and-roll big, Salah Mejri has been that for Dallas in recent years.

The best available free agent is the Manimal, Kenneth Faried. He is 29 years old, always plays hard, and averaged 12.9 points per game on 58.7 percent shooting in 25 games for the Rockets last season after joining them mid-January. He picked up the slack until Clint Capela returned from injury, but once that happened Faried fell out of the rotation. The main reason for that, and for his limited playoff role, is that Faried is not much of a defender anymore. But he can get buckets.

Another name — one that sends shivers down the spines of Lakers fans — is Dwight Howard. He was traded to Memphis this summer for C.J. Miles and is expected to be bought out. If/when that happens, he has played solidly in recent years. When healthy. And that’s the bigger concern, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season. On a team where both LeBron and Davis are going to get a lot of nights off, the Lakers need role players they can count on to absorb minutes, and Howard is just not that guy.

The Lakers could look to the trade market — guys such as Nerlens Noel could eventually become available, Detroit may listen to offers for Christian Wood — however, Los Angeles does not have a lot to give up in a deal.

Bottom line, the options for the Lakers are not good. While the loss of Cousins does not take them out of contender status, it makes reaching their potential that much harder. The margin for error has shrunk again.

They will need to add someone at center, but at this point it’s a case of holding their nose and taking whatever they see as the best fit.

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: Marcus Morris, agent Rich Paul part ways

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Marcus Morris caused a stir by backing out of his two-year, $20 million agreement with the Spurs to sign a one-year, $15 million contract with the Knicks.

It’s radical enough whenever a player reneges on a contract agreement. Morris’ situation was complicated by San Antonio already trading Davis Bertans to make room for him, backing out after the moratorium ended and being represented by Rich Paul – the NBA’s most controversial agent.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

New Knick Marcus Morris and his agent Rich Paul have agreed to part ways, sources told the Daily News.

Morris, according to a source, turned down a $41 million offer from the Clippers before pivoting to the Spurs and, eventually, the Knicks.

Bondy initially reported Morris and Nerlens Noel fired Paul. Since, Bondy issued two corrections: Noel remains with Klutch Sports, and Morris and Paul parted ways.

Something clearly went very wrong with Morris’ free agency. Many questions remain about who’s responsible and how.

In some ways, this looks similar to Carlos Boozer’s saga leaving the Cavaliers for the Jazz in 2004. After getting Cleveland to let him hit free agency contingent on re-signing, Boozer instead bolted for Utah. In the aftermath, Rob Pelinka (now Lakers general manager) resigned as Boozer’s agent. Boozer got his better contract. Pelinka moved on in an attempt to save his reputation with teams.

This might not be the same, though. It’s unclear when in this process Paul stopped representing Morris. It’s also unclear just how mutual this parting was.

I’m also curious about details of that $41 million Clippers offer. How many years was that over? Was that the Clippers’ plan before trading for Maurice Harkless and a first-round pick? Was it contingent on Morris waiting in case they didn’t get Kawhi Leonard? We just don’t yet know enough details to evaluate that.