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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

Sixers Zhaire Smith has foot surgery, no timetable for return

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I don’t believe in curses, but if I did…

Philadelphia rookie Zhaire Smith had surgery on the Jones fracture Thursday night, and there is no timetable for his return. However, this is the injury that sidelined Joel Embiid for all of his rookie season.

 

A Jones fracture is to the bone that runs from the “little toe” up towards the ankle on the foot. The challenge with treating it is this is not an area of the body that receives a lot of blood flow, so injuries can be slow to heal.

Why mention a curse? Because Smith joins a long list of recent Philadelphia first-rounders who suffered a serious injury before their rookie years: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Landry Shamet. (Yes, the Sixers knew some of them were injured before the draft, still…)

Smith showed a lot of athleticism and some promise at Summer League, he needs to work on his handles and his shot to take advantage of his athletic gifts, but there is real potential there. A season off due to injury is not ideal, but it could be put to good use. While the Sixers are already elite, Smith is another project to watch.

Report: 76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffers Jones fracture, undergoing surgery

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The 76ers announced rookie Zhaire Smith suffered a foot injury.

It doesn’t sound good.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Smith joins a long list of recent Philadelphia first-rounders who suffered serious injury before their rookie years – Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Landry Shamet. Though the 76ers sometimes drafted hurt players, there’s also a lot of bad luck on that list.

It’s unclear how much time Smith will miss. He might return before the regular season. He might miss a huge chunk of the season.

But at minimum, Smith will miss several weeks of training. Wilson Chandler has become even more likely to claim the backup small-forward job behind Robert Covington.

76ers: Zhaire Smith injured foot

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The 76ers – intentionally and unintentionally – keep finding first-round picks injured before their rookie seasons.

Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons… and now Zhaire Smith.

76ers:

This is obviously extremely vague, but the injury is significant enough Philadelphia announced it.

Smith had a chance to challenge veteran Wilson Chandler for minutes behind Robert Covington at small forward. But considering Smith’s youth and raw skill set, an immediate rotation role would have likely signaled Chandler’s decline.

Even if Smith is set back just during offseason training, this makes it even less likely he receives regular playing time to begin the season.

Report: Nerlens Noel signing 1+1 contract with Thunder

AP Photo/LM Otero
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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.