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NBA Daily: OKC Sitting On Top Of Stacked West

The Thunder are currently hovering around the top of the West. Jordan Hicks takes a look at what has been helping them be successful up to this point in the season.

Jordan Hicks

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During the offseason, just about everyone had Paul George jumping ship and joining LeBron James in Los Angeles. It totally made sense. Oklahoma City had just gotten torched by the Utah Jazz in six games, the Thunder didn’t have much of a promising future if PG-13 stayed, they still had Carmelo Anthony’s atrocious contract to deal with and Billy Donovan was more-or-less on the hot seat.

To everyone’s surprise, George decided to stay, inking a four-year deal to buddy up with Russell Westbrook. Many questioned this move, pointing to the fact that it would be much easier to win a championship in LA with LeBron. Regardless of all the noise, George felt something special brewing with the Thunder and felt he had an opportunity to win now.

Fast forward through the first quarter of the season and Oklahoma City is sitting atop a stacked Western Conference with a record of 17-8. They’ve had dominating wins over the Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz and even the Golden State Warriors.

Things didn’t appear to be peachy off-the-bat. Andre Roberson – their best defender – re-injured the same knee that received surgery last season and still hasn’t returned. They started off the season with four straight losses. But after rattling off seven straight wins, and 17 of their last 21, the Thunder seem to be back on the right track.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why OKC is winning games – things that happened both before the season started and are continuing to happen throughout the course of the season thus far.

Offloading The Carmelo Anthony Contract

This move was great for many reasons – some of which will be explained later in this article – but the one we will focus on is actually getting Carmelo off the team. Not only did it save ownership a lot of money from the luxury tax, it actually made their roster better. Carmelo can still play basketball at a high level, but his role as a starter for OKC clearly didn’t work out, and they didn’t really have a need for him coming off the bench, especially considering the fact that they would have had to pay him roughly 28 million dollars.

The Rockets tried to employ Carmelo in a similar fashion, and we already saw how quickly that played out. Getting him off the roster was very important, and by doing so it opened the doors to a much-improved roster.

Trading For Dennis Schroder

By drafting Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks made a statement that Schroder was no longer part of their future plans. Whether or not you think his contract is bad, it doesn’t come close to as negative as Carmelo’s, even considering the fact that Carmelo’s was expiring after this season.

What most would consider as a blessing, the Thunder essentially flipped Carmelo’s deal to take on Schroder and his deal. The only difference, however, is that Schroder still has a lot to offer a team, especially when it comes to scoring off the bench.

His fit in the Thunder lineup has almost been seamless. Playing roughly 29.4 minutes a night, he’s averaging 16.8 points on 42.7 percent shooting. He’s behind only George and Westbrook in field goal attempts per game, and while he’s not as efficient as them, he’s not necessarily being asked to be.

On top of scoring off the bench, he’s notching 5 assists to only 2.8 turnovers and adding 1.2 steals a game, as well.

With Westbrook already having missed multiple games, plugging Schroder into a starting role that he is already comfortable with adds a much needed insurance policy-type benefit to this OKC roster. He clearly isn’t as talented as Westbrook, but he’s not necessarily a major drop off either. Oh yeah, he’s also shooting 34.3 percent from three compared to Westbrook’s depressing 21.8 percent.

Plugging Jerami Grant Into The Starting Five

After inking Grant to his new contract in the offseason, the writing was on the wall for Melo. There was no way the Thunder were going to keep him on and pay the unthinkable amount of luxury tax they would have owed.

The Thunder experimented with Patrick Patterson in the starting lineup the first few games, but plugging Grant in there essentially made them take off. He has an athletic, long frame that allows him to guard multiple positions. He’s playing highly efficient basketball on the offensive end of the floor, shooting 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. He’s third on the team in net rating at plus-11.5, second in true shooting percentage at 60.4 percent, and second in blocks at 1.2 per game.

His addition to the lineup clearly offers a plethora of more dimensions than what Carmelo brought with him. He might never be as good as “peak” Carmelo, but he’s certainly a lot more effective in today’s game.

Paul George Staying Put

This one is obvious. If George leaves, the Thunder are in a bad spot. Westbrook and Steven Adams aren’t enough to win a championship. Luckily for the franchise, George decided to stay long-term (or at least three more seasons).

His play this year has been otherworldly. He’s leading the NBA in steals at 2.2 per game. Per NBA stats, he’s first in defensive win shares. He’s currently 12th in scoring at 24.3 points a night. He dropped 47 points in Brooklyn against the Nets, including a game-winning three-pointer to seal the victory.

OKC currently has the number one defense in the NBA with a defensive rating of 101.6. Yes, Steven Adams is quite the force under the basket, but Paul George has been arguably the best defensive player on the team this season.

There are still plenty of games left to play, but if the beginning of this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Oklahoma City Thunder are surely going back to the playoffs. The odds of them finishing this season atop the Western Conference aren’t incredibly likely – they have had one of the easier schedules to start the season – but their style of play and the consistency at which they compete on the court night in and night-out surely point to them being a dangerous team come the postseason.

A handful of important pieces weren’t discussed in depth, but it will be the continued play of guys of Steven Adams and Terrance Ferguson, coupled with the return of defensive talent Andre Roberson, that will help the Thunder win games throughout the rest of the season.

As they continue on into December, the Thunder fanbase can find solace in one thing: this core is here to stay. Whatever success they have this season can only be built on next year.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?

Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.

Shane Rhodes

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Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.

Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.

Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.

And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.

While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.

And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.

With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.

In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.

Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.

Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.

Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.

So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?

It would be difficult, to say the least.

To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.

Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.

There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.

Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.

However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.

And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?

It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?

It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.

Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.

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NBA Daily: That’s Not How We Wanted It

The NBA Finals were fun to watch, but with the massive injuries and a missed opportunity on a star-studded matchup, Matt John explains why this series could have been so much more.

Matt John

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You may not want to read this if you’re not a fan of a buzzkill.

Wasn’t that last sequence before the NBA Finals ended enough of one already?

Anyway, before we get to the nitty-gritty, we need to give credit where credit is due. The Toronto Raptors deserved their title as the 2018-2019 NBA champions.

They paid their dues. They had their obstacles to go through. They even faced the real possibility of having to blow everything up one year ago at this time. And now here they are, the reigning champions of the basketball world. Even if Kawhi Leonard winds up leaving this summer, Toronto’s championship season proved that they did everything right and got what they wanted from him.

It’s also nice to see a new team don the name as champions. We don’t get to see newcomers win the title all too often, so seeing the Raptors get their first ever title as a franchise is pretty heartwarming in and of itself.

And yet, as inspiring as Toronto’s journey has been, we’re going to look back at this series and wonder what could have been.

The public wanted to see this match up. We wanted to see Kawhi vs. Kevin Durant. We wanted to see if Golden State could finally be dethroned once and for all. We wanted to see if the Warriors could complete the three-peat. We wanted to see if Toronto really pushed itself to the best of its abilities.

We got some of those things, but not in the way that we would have liked.

This starts with the Warriors’ defeat. The general public outside of the Bay Area was pulling for Toronto to overtake Golden State in the Finals. Technically, the haters all got what they wanted. It’s just that this wasn’t how they wanted the Warriors to fall.

Ever since Durant announced that he was headed to Golden State, the Warriors have been the most recent team – and possibly the most powerful one – that NBA crowds collectively loved to root against. Seeing such a powerhouse lose was always the dream for fans over the last three years. But in this scenario, what they wanted to see was Golden State lose at full strength. Not progressively limp as their season slowly disintegrated.

But that’s what we had to watch. KD missed all but a quarter and a half of the series. That was a bummer. Then Klay Thompson tore his ACL right in the middle of what NBA Twitter deemed as “Game 6 Klay,” so we never got a real chance to see if the Warriors actually had a shot at pushing the series to a Game 7.

It only got worse from there. They not only missed Durant for almost the entire series, but now the former two-time Finals MVP is slated to miss the entire 2019-2020 season and may never be the same player again with a ruptured Achilles. There is a fair amount of blame to go around for KD’s tragic injury, with some of it being squarely on our shoulders.

There was so much pressure on him to get back after the Raptors went up 3-1 that his commitment was in question. Even if Durant ignored all that and chose to play by his own accord, we can clearly tell now that he wasn’t ready to return. Not many have been cheering for KD to win since he’s been a Warrior, but nobody wanted to see the man suffer a career-altering injury.

To add to that, Durant’s injury made the series a wrap, but Thompson’s injury only serves as overkill. To make it worse, those injuries overshadowed that DeMarcus Cousins – who actually gave Golden State some good minutes – was clearly not back to normal.

What made this such a missed opportunity is that this may be the last time we see this Golden State team together. Love them or hate them, we may never see a juggernaut like the Warriors quite this strong again for quite some time.

It remains in question if some of these guys are going to be back next season with Durant and Thompson’s free agency coming up. Now that those two, who are among the best available players this summer, are going to miss most of, if not, the entirety of next season, that screws things up.

That doesn’t mean it was all bad. There were some truly memorable moments and plot lines on display during these Finals. With everything that the Warriors had to endure, they suddenly became the underdog in this series. When was the last time we could say that about Golden State? 2013? Plus, even when the odds were stacked against them, the Warriors still gave the Raptors everything they could handle.

It didn’t have to do with just the Warriors either. Remember when Durant called Kawhi a “system player” back in 2014? While he probably changed his mind about that years ago, we finally were proven that Kawhi is far from a system player. In fact, Kawhi may just very well be the system.

By winning his second championship with a different franchise, Kawhi joins a rare group of players who won titles with two different teams, including LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman and Ray Allen.

Finally, in retrospect, it seriously is so mind-blowing that the Warriors were able to make five consecutive runs to the Finals. It’s hard to believe, but the only team to do that was the Boston Celtics in the 1960’s. We’ve seen teams make multiple runs to the Finals, but not five times in a row. While LeBron made eight consecutive Finals, he did with that with two different teams.

Many wanted Golden State’s era of dominance to end. Just not like this. Even though we would have preferred it go differently, we should all be happy that there’s a new champion now even if circumstances made it easier for it to win.

In the end, it’s not hard to say that it’s just as satisfying to see the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors as it is bittersweet.

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NBA Daily: An Update on 2019 Free Agency

NBA free agency begins in just over two weeks. And despite the fact that players can’t agree to contracts until June 30, aggressive changes to the free agent pool can already be seen. Drew Maresca examines the most recent news pertaining to the top free agents of 2019.

Drew Maresca

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Not long ago, Kevin Durant was assumed to be the prize of the biggest free agency extravaganza since 2010. But with less than three weeks until free agency officially opens, Durant’s status as a free agent has been cast into doubt – to say the least – as a result of the Achilles rupture he suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

For those of you who have been off the grid or too busy to stay up-to-date with the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the Warriors reported that Durant suffered a calf strain in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals on May 8 after suffering a non-contact injury that had lots of symptoms of an Achilles injury. But Durant’s injury was officially diagnosed as a calf strain, and under the watchful eyes of the Warriors coaches and training staff, he rehabbed himself quickly enough to return for Game Five of the NBA Finals – whether or not he truly wanted to or felt pressured to by the media and his teammates and coaches is another story altogether.

Unfortunately for Durant and at least a half-dozen teams hoping to sign him to a long-term deal this summer including the Knicks, Clippers, and Nets, Durant’s return resulted in a ruptured Achilles – for which he underwent surgery on Wednesday afternoon in New York.

Achilles ruptures are viewed by NBA personnel as a very serious injury that requires approximately 12 months of recovery and rehab. For example, DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles in January 2018 and returned 357 days later.

The track record for players returning from an Achilles rupture is a mixed bag. Dominique Wilkins returned to form following a ruptured Achilles when he was 32 years old in 1992 with 1990s-era medicine and procedures. Wesley Matthews also returned to form following an Achilles rupture in 2015 at the age of 28. But there are far more cautionary tales than there are ones that inspire hope, including Brandon Jennings and Elton Brand.

Despite the injury, teams that are operating on longer timelines will still go after Durant. The Knicks are rumored to maintain interest in signing Durant to, according to Ian Begley of SNY.

But what about the rest of the league? There are still lots of Allstar free agents-to-be and teams with the requisite salary cap room to convince them to change zip codes. Who will be the most sought-after free agent? And what do teams do now, especially those who had eyes on pairing Durant and another star?

Kawhi Leonard has quickly become the most talked about free-agent-to-be – even more so than Durant prior to his rupturing his Achilles (but after his initial injury sidelined him for a month).

Leonard proved pundits wrong this season, scoring a career-high 26.6 points per game on 54% shooting in 60 games, which could have easily been more than 60 if not for “load management”. He then upped the ante by leading the Raptors to their first NBA Finals appearance, scoring 30.9 points per game through the Playoffs, including a miraculous, series-clinching, buzzer-beater to close out the 76ers in Game Seven of the Conference Semifinals.

Leonard clearly makes an average team good, and a good team great – even without the presence of another all-world talent. And he’ll turn 28 years old just prior to free agency, which makes him two years younger than Durant. Leonard was always about as good as it gets, but with Durant’s injury he’s become the biggest prize in free agency.

And then there’s Kyrie Irving, whom the Knicks, Nets and Clippers all reportedly wanted to pair with Durant, Davis or Leonard as is evidenced by the cap clearing moves each of the three teams made in the lead up to free agency: the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. to Dallas, the Clippers traded Tobias Harris to the 76ers and Avery Bradley to the Grizzlies, and the Nets recently sent Allen Crabbe and two first-round picks to Atlanta.

But Irving’s impending free agency was made all the more interesting just yesterday when he alerted the Celtics that he would not opt-in to the final year of his contract (not a surprise) and fired longtime agent, Jeff Wechsler, indicating that he will sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports (big surprise) –  which has led to rampant speculation due to Jay-Z’s past relationship with the Nets as a minority owner, as well as the fact that Roc Nation’s President and Chief of Branding and Strategy (Michael Yormark) is the twin brother of Nets’ Team President (Brett Yormark).

Interestingly, Roc Nation also represents Durant and Nets’ star Caris LeVert.

But that’s not all when it comes to 2019 free agents news: Anthony Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, said on Monday that Davis’ preferred trade destinations have been narrowed to two teams: the Lakers and Knicks.

Paul warned that Davis will enter free agency in 2020 if he’s dealt to Boston – a strong message sent by Paul and Davis.

And what’s more, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Vice President David Griffin stated on Monday that the Pelicans are looking for a Davis trade to return the team an All-Star, a young player with serious upside, and a pair of first-round picks – significantly more than the Spurs received for Leonard last summer and/or the Indiana Pacers received for Paul George the summer before that.

Given Davis’ willingness to go on the record with his preferred destinations – something most free agents in years’ past have been reticent to do – this might not be the year for other teams not listed by Davis to try to woo him because it could end up being the season that gamble doesn’t pay off – unless Leonard leaves Toronto and beats Davis to the punch.

Meanwhile, while Jimmy Butler’s name has been surprisingly absent from free agent rumors, his teammate – Tobias Harris – has failed to maintain an equally low profile. Harris has been linked to the Brooklyn Nets for some time due to his Long Island-upbringing. And those rumors have heated up in recent weeks. The Athletic recently reported that Harris and the Nets have mutual interest in one another, and that Nets’ coach Kenny Atkinson’s brother, Steve Atkinson, was Harris’ high school coach. And if the Nets ultimately draft Harris’ younger brother, Terry Harris, in the 2019 NBA Draft, you can assume they’re planning on adding a second Harris to their roster. Terry Harris worked out for the Nets on Wednesday and the Knicks on Thursday.

And then there are stars like Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins, all of whom have either kept their plans close to the vest and/or voiced their desire to remain with their current organizations.

Having said that, Vucevic is reportedly a player that the Dallas Mavericks would like to add. And Mark Cuban has never been one to sit idly by. So it’s plausible that Cuban’s Mavericks could target Vucevic early in free agency so if a deal does not come to fruition, he can turn his attention elsewhere and still have options.

Free agents can officially begin negotiating with teams on June 30 at 6 pm EST. This year’s free agency period just might alter the destinies of a number of franchises. And it could easily go down as the most prolific free agency period ever. But with the pace at which changes to the free agent pool have been made as far as their health, agents, etc. is concerned, who knows what we’ll learn prior to June 30.

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