Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

4 Comments

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

Scottie Pippen doesn’t agree with Kevin Durant’s complaints about NBA (VIDEO)

6 Comments

Kevin Durant has said a lot of things this summer. The current Brooklyn Nets superstar said in a recent Wall Street Journal story that he no longer feels a connection to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the reasons why he decided to leave the Golden State Warriors.

Included in Durant’s recent comments were those decrying the state of a basketball player’s life, saying that sometimes he, “hate(s) the circus of the NBA.”

Folks responded strongly to Durant’s comments, with many understanding the mental strain an outsized, constant media attention would put on any person.

Then again, others felt as though players had to accept that attention in exchange for the hefty salaries and sponsorship deals they gain because of it.

You can put Scottie Pippen in that second category, by the way.

Speaking on ESPN’s “The Jump”, Pippen said that Durant ultimately had to have the right perspective.

I understand what Kevin is saying, but I also want to let him know that this is a part of our business. This is why he’s making all that money. Because, we’ve been able to globalize the game through our players. Not just what they do on a basketball court, but, you know — using digital stuff of them talking, travelling abroad, to help promote our game. It’s part of our package to help promote our game, because that helps our salaries grow. So I don’t get what he’s saying, especially with a player that’s been in the league as long as he has.

That’s a pretty reasonable expectation. Every person is allowed to have their mental headspace in balance, but the undeniable context of professional sports is of imbalance.

If he’s going to cash the big checks, he’s going to have to “play the game” as it were, even if that means not playing the actual game. And of course, he’s welcome to step away. People — musicians, sports stars, actors — have decided to simply call it a day after making a certain amount. It’s other factors that keep Durant in a uniform: he certainly doesn’t need any more money.

But this is largely a thought exercise. There’s no sense admonishing Durant in any real way, and we can’t live inside his head. He’s welcome to his experience, and at the very least Durant appears like he’s trying to deal with that every day. He’s allowed to be sick of the “circus” from time-to-time.

Kevin Durant: I never fit in like other Warriors

Harry How/Getty Images
6 Comments

Kevin Durant‘s time with the Warriors was both extraordinary and extraordinarily short.

In his three years there, Golden State won two championships and made another NBA Finals. Durant made an All-NBA first team and two All-NBA second teams. Usually, when a player and team reach anywhere near that level of shared success, they stick together.

But Durant, who signed with the Nets, left the Warriors this summer.

Why?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“I came in there wanting to be part of a group, wanting to be part of a family, and definitely felt accepted,” he says. “But I’ll never be one of those guys. I didn’t get drafted there.… Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there. And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there. So me? Shit, how you going to rehabilitate me? What you going to teach me? How can you alter anything in my basketball life? I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles.”

“As time went on,” he says, “I started to realize I’m just different from the rest of the guys. It’s not a bad thing. Just my circumstances and how I came up in the league. And on top of that, the media always looked at it like KD and the Warriors. So it’s like nobody could get a full acceptance of me there.”

His tenure in the Bay Area was great, he says, but because of media speculation, fan anxiety, “it didn’t feel as great as it could have been.”

This is a sound assessment. It’s a toned-down version of the report he felt disrespected with the Warriors, but it still hits similar notes.

Durant was never going to be as beloved as his teammates who lifted the franchise from the cellar to a championship before he arrived. He just didn’t have that type of equity with the fan base.

It didn’t help that so many assumed Golden State would’ve won the 2017 and 2018 titles even without Durant. Nearly all champions are appreciated. But to many, Durant felt superfluous.

Another complication: Durant preferred a different offensive system to the one other Warriors, including coach Steve Kerr, favored. That led to analysis that naturally separated Durant from the rest of the team, which trickled into feelings of greater divide.

If Durant wanted to have a comfortable fit, he could’ve re-signed with the Thunder. He was royalty in Oklahoma City. It sounds like he doesn’t regret leaving, though.

He also could’ve been instantly beloved by signing with his hometown Wizards. He didn’t sound interested in that, either.

Maybe it’ll be different in Brooklyn. Unlike the Warriors, the Nets were only just beginning to establish their identity when he arrived.

But he still comes with baggage – the notoriety of ring chasing with the team that eliminated him the prior season, having already established his greatness elsewhere, a torn Achilles that could keep his play from meeting expectations. At minimum, Durant will never be the homegrown star in Brooklyn. At worst, he’ll never be a star at all in Brooklyn.

Most likely, he’ll find a middle ground. Will he be happy in it? I’m not sure. It at least sounds like he has learned how to handle those circumstances.

Kevin Durant says he wanted to remain part of Thunder community, but now ‘I don’t trust nobody there’

Getty Images
3 Comments

Kevin Durant has already trashed the Thunder.

Everyone missed the message, because of the medium – third-person tweets that looked like they were intended to come from a burner account. Even after Durant said he intended to send the tweets from his own account, little attention was given to the content.

Now, Durant is ensuring his spite lands.

J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

At his first game in Oklahoma City as a visitor—February 2017—fans yowled for blood and brandished cupcakes, because Durant was supposedly soft. “Such a venomous toxic feeling when I walked into that arena,” he says. “And just the organization, the trainers and equipment managers, those dudes is pissed off at me? Ain’t talking to me? I’m like, Yo, this is where we going with this? Because I left a team and went to play with another team?”

His mother recalls one particularly appalling piece of video: a Thunder fan firing bullets into a No. 35 jersey. Bullets—after she and Durant and half his extended family relocated to Oklahoma, after they embraced the community, after Durant gave a million dollars to tornado victims.

“I’ll never be attached to that city again because of that,” Durant says. “I eventually wanted to come back to that city and be part of that community and organization, but I don’t trust nobody there. That shit must have been fake, what they was doing. The organization, the GM, I ain’t talked to none of those people, even had a nice exchange with those people, since I left.”

Thunder fans were vicious in Durant’s return to Oklahoma City. The shock factor probably made it feel worse.

It shouldn’t have.

Durant was naïve about how his decision to leave for the Warriors would be perceived. Of course Thunder fans would resent him. The national backlash wasn’t quite as predictable, but it wasn’t surprising, either. After how LeBron James was viewed for leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat, Durant should have been better prepared for the outcry.

It’s fine for Oklahoma City fans – who grew an attachment to Durant, which trickled up to his enormous salary – to loathe Durant as a character in the NBA drama. There are lines, though. Threatening violence is unacceptable. (I’m not sure whether the bullets video was threatening or just symbolic.)

Likewise, if Thunder employees want to give Durant a cold shoulder, that’s fine, too. It’s not nice, but let’s not make a federal case out of people not being nice.

But I’m sure those fans and employees never indicated to Durant they’d treat him that way if he left. While he played in Oklahoma City, they surely made it sound as if they loved him as a person, not just a basketball player. Durant found out the hard way that wasn’t the case. His response is completely justified.

That said, time heals most wounds, likely including this one. Durant and the Thunder accomplished so much together. I suspect he, general manager Sam Presti and other members of the organization will eventually make peace with each other.

Doc Rivers says Paul George trade to Clippers was on again/off again several times until it happened

2 Comments

In a wild summer of big moves — Anthony Davis to the Lakers, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Nets, and the list goes on and on and on — it was Paul George being traded to the Clippers that left the NBA stunned. A few people may have heard whispers that George and Russell Westbrook had a wandering eye, but nobody was talking about it seriously.

Nobody saw the Clippers swinging the trade to get George — which Kawhi Leonard told them they needed to do to get him, too — coming.

It was such a wild trade that was off and on several times over the course of the day it went down, something Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers explained on the Rich Eisen Show. Listen to the whole clip (above), but here is the money part:

“We knew we were close. I can tell you on the day that it all went down, at 10 that morning, we thought the deal was over, that it wasn’t going to happen. Because Oklahoma and us, we just couldn’t get a deal done. At two, we thought it was back on. At five, Lawrence [Frank, Clippers president] said ‘Hey, it’s over. We can all just go to dinner.’

“And so I was on my way to dinner, I was literally walking into Nobu in Malibu and I get a text, ‘Grab your phone, it’s back on.’ Within an hour, the deal was done.”

Rivers also confirms that Leonard’s people told the Clippers they needed “to add to the roster” without giving up too much. Whether they gave up too much long term is up for debate (and how well the Clippers play the next couple of seasons, if they can make the Finals or win a title, will color that discussion). They gave up a good young player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plus a boatload of draft picks.

They had to if they wanted to make the bold play of a contender.

And those kinds of moves tend to be chaotic.