Associated Press

Three Things to Know: 1-5 Wizards are worse than you think

3 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) The 1-5 Wizards are worse than you think. Watch the Wizards play and what is wrong grows more and more obvious. It’s not the defense — although it’s terrible, the Wizards are allowing 114.5 points per 100 possessions this season (26th in the NBA and 6.9 worse than they gave up last season). It’s not their three-point shooting, although the Wizards are hitting just 31 percent from three as a team. It wasn’t even that the Wizards got blown out by the Clippers 136-104 Sunday night.

It’s not the statistics at all.

Watch Washington in person and the team’s lack of chemistry is painfully obvious:

• When Bradley Beal slipped and went to the floor in the second half, it was Clipper Tobias Harris who helped him up because no Wizard teammate came over to. There were two other similar instances I noticed Sunday night where the Clipper player helped a Wizards player off the floor because teammates did not rush over to do so.

• When the Wizards took the court to start the game there was almost no interaction among players — Otto Porter was talking to the referee because that was the only person willing to talk to him.

• Clippers players seemed to be more concerned when Markieff Morris went down with an elbow to the face than the Wizards (Morris left the game with a concussion).

The Wizards are clearly playing for themselves and not each other, not the team.

“That was the first thing Scotty [Brooks, Wizards’ coach] said after the game,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “He said, ‘Man, your guys are just, watching them, you just feel the energy and you just feel them. They get along.”

Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal have spoken before about guys playing for themselves and their stats, not sacrificing for the team, and that theme — on the court and in the locker room — carried over into Sunday.

“Just gotta go out there and compete,” John Wall said. “We play like a team that’s 5-1 and people are just going to lay down, we got to play with a sense of urgency that we’re 1-5 now…. “When you play the game of basketball you can’t worry about how many points you got, how many steals you got, how many assists you got, it’s just competing.”

Beyond the chemistry, of all the on-court problems, nothing is going to change until the defense improves.

“Our defense is horrendous…” Austin Rivers said. “You’ve got to have personal pride. You’ve got to get mad when someone scores on you. We’re not the Warriors.”

“Just heart. Just heart and pride,” Wall said of what it will take to fix the defense. “Guard your man one-on-one, that’s really the main key. We gotta do a better job of switching — when we do do that, like we did in the first quarter, I think we played the best we have played for a while.”

The switching trend in the NBA is giving the Wizards problems on both ends.

“On offense when we get (a switch we like), we take a bad shot sometimes and bail those guys out,” Wall said. “When they put us in bad situations, we gamble too much or don’t stay on the play and get a stop… we do a good job of it in practice, but we have to bring the same competitive edge we have competing against each other in practice to playing someone else.”

Washington’s play is ugly and coach Scott Brooks could pay the price with his job if things don’t improve. He certainly is not faultless in all this.

However, the Wizards have changed coaches before. They have changed players around on the periphery then spun it as trying to fix chemistry issues (Marcin Gortat going to the Clippers is the latest along those lines). Everything changes except the core, and yet the same problem exists.

Which means maybe it’s getting to be time for the Wizards to take a fresh look at that core and if it works.

2) Does firing of Tyronn Lue mean Cavaliers realize it’s time to go all-in on the rebuild? Last July, when LeBron James decided to head west, the Cavaliers brain trust decided to pivot to… nobody is sure what exactly. They wanted to walk the very fine line of a rebuild on the fly — compete now while building for the future — and they fell off that tightrope.

This isn’t a team built to win now, not with Kevin Love leading an aging roster constructed to support LeBron — Tristan Thompson, George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver. They are not a group built to create great looks and rack up wins on their own. There’s a reason Vegas set the under/over on wins for the Cavaliers this season at 31.5.

It’s also not a rebuild in Cleveland. How many players on the Cavaliers are younger than 25? Four. Just four — Collin Sexton, Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Sam Dekker. Guys we think of as young — Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood — are all 26 and closer to their prime, and they all come with questions.

Sunday Lue paid the price for a 0-6 start and a sense among the front office in Cleveland they needed to go another direction, a coach better suited to a young team (even if the Cavs are not yet htat).

That start, however, was not about Lue. It’s about a team in limbo. The Cavaliers need to pick a path. Rebuilding would make the most sense.

Play Colin Sexton more and live with the at times painful learning process. He’s got real potential, but he’s still adjusting to the speed of the NBA and settles for far too many long twos.

More importantly, it’s time to start working to trade the veterans and getting pieces for a rebuild back (picks and prospects). There will a market at the deadline for Kyle Korver — a shooter on a fair contract, $7.6 million this season and with a $3.4 million buyout for next season. George Hill is overpaid this season ($19 million) but he is a solid point guard when healthy and come the deadline there could be teams willing to take the hit this season knowing he has a $1 million buyout next season. J.R. Smith, at $14.7 million this season (with a $3.9 million buyout next season) will be harder to move because, without LeBron, teams are not sure how much he will help them.

Love is the big piece to move, but with his new contract it’s a lot harder. That is probably a next summer move — but it’s one they need to start moving toward.

3) Oklahoma City gets first win of the season. When you’re busting out of a slump, you don’t care where and how it happens. So what if the Phoenix Suns were on the second night of a back-to-back? Who cares if they didn’t have Devin Booker?

What matters is Paul George and Russell Westbrook scored 23 points a piece and the Thunder got their first win of the season, 117-110.

Westbrook was doing Westbrook things all night.

Also, don’t sleep on Nerlens Noel, who had 20 points and 15 boards.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George lead Thunder past Suns for first win

Associated Press
Leave a comment

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Thunder didn’t care that Phoenix had just one win this season, was playing the second game of a back-to-back and was missing its leading scorer.

They just wanted to get a win.

Oklahoma City finally broke through for the first time in five tries this season. Paul George and Russell Westbrook each scored 23 points, and the Thunder beat the Suns 117-110 on Sunday.

“It feels special,” guard Dennis Schroder said. “I think we can build off of that win. We’re going to keep getting better. It was a good one tonight.”

Nerlens Noel had 20 points and 15 rebounds and Patrick Patterson added 17 points for the Thunder. Oklahoma City’s victory left the Cleveland Cavaliers, who fired coach Tyronn Lue on Sunday, as the league’s only winless team.

Thunder center Steven Adams did not play after experiencing tightness in his left calf during pregame warmups, and Noel started in his place. Coach Billy Donovan was pleased with the way Noel performed in his first start.

“He did a lot of really good things,” Donovan said. “He was really, really active. He was very active defensively. He scored some points on some lobs and some rolls and he got to the free-throw line. I was really, really impressed with his defense.”

Noel has started 159 of his 228 career games, so he was comfortable in the role.

“Just do this on a nightly basis, just being a professional, ready for whatever is thrown at me in this position,” he said. “Steven wasn’t able to go, so I just kept the same mindset of being able to be ready, no matter what. I knew if I was coming off the bench, if I was starting, I’d play the same way. That’s about it.”

Rookie Elie Okobo scored 18 points and No. 1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton added 16 points and 11 rebounds for Phoenix. Devin Booker, who entered the day as the league’s ninth-best scorer at 27.8 points per game, sat out his second straight game with a left hamstring strain.

The Thunder led 62-48 at halftime after shooting 49 percent from the field. George scored 15 points before the break, while Westbrook made just two field goals. The Thunder blew a 14-point halftime lead against Boston on Thursday, so the threat of falling apart still was there.

Westbrook hit back-to-back layups to make it 82-65 in the third. George drained a shot from just beyond half court at the third-quarter buzzer to put Oklahoma City up 96-76.

“It’s one of the funnest basketball games I’ve played in since I’ve been here,” Noel said. “Guys just play so unselfish. This team is really built the right way. Guys just want to make winning plays, and everybody is going to excel when the play style is like that.”

Phoenix outscored the Thunder 34-21 in the fourth quarter.

“A lot of positives in the game,” Suns coach Igor Kokoskov said. “You’re not going to feel better – we lost the game. But effort was there. I think we tried, and we tried for 48 minutes.”

 

Thunder secured Paul George, surprisingly kept spending

Getty Images
2 Comments

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

1 Comment

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

5 Comments

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.