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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

You can play a Kevin Durant-themed ‘Snake’ video game now

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I like stupid internet things, and the NBA is pretty stupid in the heat of August. I also like nostalgia, and I bet you do too. That’s why you are looking forward to LeBron James in Space Jam 2.

But what about a Kevin Durant-themed take on the classic “Snake” video game, made popular for my generation on Nokia cell phones?

That exists, too. Apparently.

A fan has created a free browser-based game that features Durant as the snake and folks from his career — Billy Donovan, CJ McCollum, Steven Adams — as the bits he eats to grow longer. When a player eats items, some trigger little phrases at the top of the screen.

For example, if you eat Kyle Singler, it says “Kd can’t win a championship with those cats.” This is a reference to one of Durant’s tweets about his OKC teammates from one of his burner accounts.

When you die, you can keep playing or “Hit Free Agency” to pick a new team. The options available are the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Seattle SuperSonics, University of Texas Longhorns, Brooklyn Nets, and New York Knicks.

I’m pretty bad at it, so my high score before I gave up was 875.

Play the game here and see if you can score better than me.

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.

NBA Power Rankings after wildest summer in league history

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That. Was. Insane.

The NBA has never seen an offseason like this last one where so many elite players moved teams and shifted the balance of power around the league. While all the dust has not settled (Chris Paul, for example) we can now take a step back and put out our annual power rankings. The basic ranking criteria here is “chance to win an NBA title” which means a couple top teams from the East are ranked ahead of better teams in the West, just because their odds of getting through to the Finals are higher. Let’s go at it:

Clippers small icon 1. Clippers (Last Season 48-34). No team had a better summer than Steve Ballmer’s crew: They had stalked Kawhi Leonard for a year, and not only did he come he recruited Paul George to come with him. The Clippers should be lock-down defensively (Patrick Beverley will get more time at the point), has offensive versatility, and still brings Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench. In a deep West that makes them the team to beat.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (60-22). They re-signed Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, their two biggest off-season priorities, but they could not keep Malcolm Brogdon, and that will sting. Wesley Matthews will have a lot asked of him to fill that role. Most importantly, they still have an improving Giannis Antetokounmpo. Having both Brook and Robin Lopez will make the Bucks entertaining off the court.

Sixers small icon 3. 76ers (51-31). They lost Jimmy Butler, the guy who was their end-of-game playmaker in the postseason, but adding the underrated Josh Richardson and glue guy Al Horford will help a lot to ease that blow. This should be an elite defensive team that will be right in the middle of it all in the East, but with one big question: Is Ben Simmons ready to be the team’s crunch time, halfcourt ball handler and shot creator?

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (50-32). Utah had as good an offseason as anyone (except maybe the Clippers). They upgraded at point guard with Mike Conley, who gives them a second shot creator next to Donovan Mitchell. Then they poached Bogdan Bogdanovic out of Indiana, adding more shooting and a guy who can do a little shot creation himself to the mix. This is still one of the league’s best defenses built around Rudy Gobert, but now the Jazz can score a lot, too.

Lakers small icon 5. Lakers (37-45). In Anthony Davis, at his peak at age 26, LeBron James has the single-best teammate he has ever had, one that almost perfectly complements his game. In an NBA filled with powerful duos, the Lakers have the best one. The question becomes: is the rest of the roster good enough to win? The Lakers have talented but flawed players in Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and the rest. The Lakers may not be a great regular season team (four seed?) but watch out come the playoffs.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (53-29). Whatever you think of the fit, Russell Westbrook is a talent upgrade over Chris Paul at this point in their respective (and Hall of Fame) careers. James Harden is still there, as are Clint Capela, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon (despite trade rumors). This was (for my money) the second best team in the West playoffs each of the last two years, they got a little bit better (if Harden and Westbrook can share the ball), and they remain a real threat to win the West.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (54-28). Denver poked around the free agent market, but in the end got the band back together, including bringing back Paul Millsap. The Nuggets were one of the youngest teams in the NBA last season and are counting on internal improvement from Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and company — plus the addition of Michael Porter Jr. to the rotation (not seeing Porter Jr. in Summer League due to an injury was a disappointment) — to take them to the next level. Denver remains an outstanding team, the question is will they have grown and learned enough to take the next step in the playoffs come spring?

Warriors small icon 8. Warriors (57-24). Write off Golden State at your own peril. They are not the juggernaut team of the past three years, Kevin Durant will rehab in Brooklyn and Klay Thompson is not expected back from his ACL tear until after the All-Star break (if he comes back next season at all). However, they still have Stephen Curry, they have Draymond Green in a contract year, and D’Angelo Russell is an All-Star added to the roster. The Warriors will take a step back in wins (less than 50 probably) but will be a dangerous playoff team.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (53-29). There were no bold moves (don’t be shocked if they try to make another play for Kevin Love, but his price is high), but they landed Hassan Whiteside to play the five until Jusuf Nurkic returns from injury, and they made a nice wing signing with Kent Bazemore (plus bringing back Rodney Hood). Portland got marginally better this summer, but will that be enough to take the next step in a West filled with teams making big, bold moves?

Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (49-33). Kyrie Irving headed to Brooklyn, but replacing him with Kemba Walker means Boston didn’t lose a lot on the court (casual fans don’t get just how Walker carried the Hornets) and they get a better leader for their culture. Expect big step from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Losing Al Horford will sting more, they didn’t really replace him. Boston will be fun, they will score a lot of points but not stop much of anyone.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (48-34). Indiana paid big to steal Malcolm Brogdon out of Milwaukee, giving them another shot creator and someone on Victor Oladipo’s timeline. The Pacers made nice pickups at a good price in Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren, but this team is going to miss Bogdanovic a lot (he’s in Utah now). The Pacers need to keep their heads above water until Oladipo returns from injury (Christmas or a little after).

Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (58-24). They did everything right but could not compete with the lure of home for Leonard (and they won a title with that gamble), but now they are without their alpha. This is still a talented team with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and others. When the trade deadline nears will the Raptors move some of those older players, all in the last year of their contracts, to jumpstart the rebuilding process?

Nets small icon 13. Nets (42-40). Brooklyn was one of the biggest winners in free agency landing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. However, with Durant out likely most or all of next season (and not fully his old self yet if he does return), the Nets are not yet a threat to win the East. Irving, however, is an upgrade over D’Angelo Russell on the court. Irving struggled to lead a young, talented team in Boston, can he do better in Brooklyn with a team that made the playoffs with a gritty, team-focused style a year ago?

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (48-34). No big moves this summer, although they picked up DeMarre Carroll on a nice contract. The biggest improvement will be getting Dejonte Murray back at point guard, an All-Defensive team level point guard (with rumors that his shot has come a long way). Paired with Derrick White that’s a strong defensive backcourt. Don’t forget, they still have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge on the roster. The Spurs are going to be tough to play against every night and make the playoffs.

Mavericks small icon 15. Mavericks (33-49). Now we get to see what the Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis pairing looks like — can this be one of the elite super duos in the West? Dallas is betting yes, but the rest of us need to see it work on the court before buying in. I like the Seth Curry and Delon Wright signings, Boban Marjanovic is always fun, and re-signing Maxi Kleber was smart. This team should be in the mix for a playoff spot in the West, but there is no margin for error.

16. Timberwolves (36-46). They struck out landing D’Angelo Russell or any other star on Karl-Anthony Towns’ timeline, but this team should be improved next season by not having Jimmy Butler torpedo them to start the season (then switching coaches midway through the campaign). Getting Robert Covington back from injury will help a lot, too, this was a much better defensive team with him out there. I expect more from this team than many others, but Andrew Wiggins remains the anchor on how high they can climb.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (39-43). Everyone’s favorite League Pass team from last season is not sneaking up on anyone this time around. They have a good new coach in Luke Walton and made a nice signing with Cory Joseph, and I like the Dewayne Dedmon signing more than most, but for Sacramento it’s going to be about internal improvement if they are going to end the longest playoff draught in the NBA (13 years and counting).

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (33-49). This may be too low a ranking for a team with a lot of potential. New Orleans will be a League Pass favorite this season — Alvin Gentry will have them playing fast and that should benefit Zion Williamson (put it bubble wrap early at Summer League) and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram can just get buckets, and Jrue Holiday is a good leader. This team could live up to that potential and be a playoff threat in the West. Either way, they will be must watch.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (39-43). They landed Jimmy Butler in an impressive sign-and-trade and then maxed him out, but he is surrounded by role players — Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic — who have to step up big if this team is going to make a splash in the East. Tyler Herro showed promise at Summer League. The most interesting thing to watch with Miami is them chasing another star to go with Butler (is Chris Paul, with that contract, a good fit?).

Magic small icon 20. Magic (42-40). This may be too low a ranking, but it’s hard to get excited about this team. Orlando re-signed Nikola Vucevic, but didn’t address their other big need at point guard. The Magic remain a decent team stuck in the middle of the East. They do have Markelle Fultz on the roster, that was a good role of the dice, but team officials said they’re not sure he’ll be ready to start the season. Not a good sign.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (41-41). This is a nice team led by Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, but it’s hard to see their perimeter players taking them forward much. Reggie Jackson is who he is at this point, although I like the pickup of Derrick Rose behind him as a backup. Maybe Luke Kennard can take another step forward. This is a nice team, one that will battle for a playoff spot in the East, but little more.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (22-60, LW 27). Another team that may be too low in these rankings because they have a lot of interesting young players in Zach LaVine, Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr., and maybe their star in Lauri Markkanen. I like the Tomas Satoransky signing, he played well a couple seasons ago in Washington when John Wall was out. There is good talent on the roster, but who is the alpha who brings it all together?

Hawks small icon 23. Hawks (29-53). Atlanta is building a nice young team around Trae Young and John Collins, and we’ll see what De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish can add to that (the Hawks need a player on the wing and hope one of those two becomes that guy). I expect to see improvement, and for the Hawks to remain entertaining, but they may be a year or two and a player or two away from being the kind of threat they hope to become in the East.

Suns small icon 24. Suns (19-63). The Suns starting five is not bad: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton. They also have Mikal Bridges on the wing, but things get thin fast for the Suns. I expect Rubio stabilizes their offense and makes them an improved team from a year ago, but there is a lot of roster building still be be done in the Valley of the Sun.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (32-50). It feels like the Wizards will be Bradley Beal against the world every night. This is a thin roster and John Wall is out for the season. We’ll see what guys like Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner can develop into for them, but it’s not moving the needle much now. The biggest storyline around the Wizards will be all the teams calling about a Bradley Beal trade, right now those calls are being shot down. Oh, and they may want to hire a formal GM for the season. Just saying’.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (17-65). It was a kick to the… er… punch to the guy summer for Knicks fans, who had high hopes going in of stars coming to be the franchises’ savior. The reality, the Knicks need to work to build up a base of talent, and an organizational culture, those stars want to be a part of. R.J. Barrett struggled in Summer League (15.4 points per game but on 34 percent shooting) but second-year guy Kevin Knox concerned me more when I watched him, 16.8 points per game but on just 40 percent shooting in games he should have dominated.

Grizzlies small icon 27. Grizzlies (33-49). The rebuilding is underway and the combination of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. give them a good base. Brandon Clarke has shown some promise in Summer League, 14.6 points per game but shooting 57 percent. The team will trade (or waive) Andre Iguodala at some point, but no team is giving up a first-round pick for a 35-year-old role player making $17.2 million. Clippers and Rockets are considered the frontrunners.

Thunder small icon 28. Thunder (49-33). It’s hard not to feel for Thunder fans, one year ago they had watched Paul George decide to stay and thought they had him and Russell Westbrook for years, now it’s all gone. Sam Presti pivoted as well as anyone could and stockpiled picks that will help the coming rebuild, and this is one of the league’s great scouting teams, but it will take time. Chris Paul will get traded, and they likely will listen to offers for Steven Adams, but with two-years, $53 million on his contract the market will be thin.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63). It was a disappointment not to see Darius Garland or Kevin Porter Jr. in Summer League, but both will get plenty of run come the season as the Cavaliers continue their rebuild. Right now the Cavaliers are keeping the price for a Kevin Love trade so high nobody is interested (top young players and multiple picks), but other teams are waiting for that to change as we get into the new season. Teams are calling about him.

Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (39-43). Without Kemba Walker the Hornets are starting a major rebuilding project, but they can’t even take on other team’s bad contracts for picks/young players until they get Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and the rest off their own books. I like the idea of giving Terry Rozier the ball and a chance at the point guard spot. Beyond that, watch a lot of college ball, Hornets fans, your team needs to start nailing the draft (not exactly a franchise strength over the years).

Report: After talking to him, Thunder open to trading Russell Westbrook

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When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant in 2016, the popular sentiment was they’d have to trade Russell Westbrook. Instead, Westbrook signed an extension with Oklahoma City and threw himself into leading the small-market franchise.

Now, with the Thunder trading Paul George to the Clippers for a package centered on draft picks, Westbrook’s future in Oklahoma City has again become a major topic of conversation.

This time, it doesn’t sound as if Westbrook will recommit to the Thunder.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Trading Westbrook won’t be easy. He’s due $171,139,920 over the next four years. Westbrook is also 30, reliant on his athleticism and already showing signs of decline.

But Westbrook remains a star and a big name. It takes only one team to covet him.

A team already stuck in a difficult situations – like the Heat, Pistons, Magic, Wizards or Hornets – could pool bad contracts to deal for Westbrook. He’d provide at least a short term jolt.

How much does Oklahoma City want for Westbrook, though? Given his age and salary concerns, would the Thunder just give him away if they could? Or are they holding out for at least some positive return?

Oklahoma City could still try to compete around Westbrook, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Andre Roberson (if healthy). That’s a decent team with at least a chance of making the playoffs.

But as they trade George and Jerami Grant for draft picks, the Thunder are clearly headed in a different direction. Westbrook is apparently ready to spend the rest of his prime elsewhere rather than stick out a rebuild.