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NBA Daily: Optimizing The Thunder Around Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook’s legacy has been questioned of late, especially since the Thunder’s first-round exit. Can OKC circumvent its payroll restrictions enough to build a winner around him before it’s too late?

Drew Maresca

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Russell Westbrook’s legacy has been questioned of late, especially since the Thunder lost to Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers in dramatic fashion – but that shouldn’t necessarily fall on Westbrook’s shoulders.

In a vacuum, Westbrook looks like an all-time great. He’s one of two players to ever average a triple-double and the only one to do so more than once, and he’s accomplished it for an incredible three seasons in a row and counting.

He was the 2016-17 NBA MVP and led the league in scoring and assists twice. He also did the unthinkable when he re-signed with the team that drafted him instead of signing on with a super team or bolting to a bigger/more desirable market.

But Westbrook also possesses intangibles, including antics with local media, that negatively those around him.

Westbrook looks for his own shot more often than he looks to create for others, he hasn’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs without Kevin Durant by his side and his cantankerous approach to the game promotes a negative environment and a distraction from the game itself.

Love him or hate him, we can all agree that Westbrook is a great player. But like other great, high-volume shooting point guards before him, it’s more challenging building around him than it is to build around a player not tasked with initiating offensive possessions.

And as his former teammates – James Harden and Durant – square off in the Western Conference semifinals, Westbrook can only sit idly by and watch.

While Westbrook deserves his share of the blame, the Thunder’s lack of depth is to blame, too.

But if the Thunder hope to achieve what other teams led by shoot-first point guards like Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers or Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls – namely another conference championship appearance, at least –  they must build around him carefully and deliberately. Westbrook is an ultra-talented player who can almost certainly lead a team to the promised land, he just needs specific pieces around him.

Unfortunately, the Thunder have limited wiggle room to assemble a proper cast. They are already over the cap for 2019-20 with a projected payroll of at least $146 million. They are also projected to be over the cap in 2020-21 at $132 million – although the cap is not yet set in stone and the team could offload contracts to free up space if they must.

But with the cap projected at $109 million in 2019-20, the team will only have its Taxpayer Midlevel Exception and minimum contracts to offer, so they must be creative. Let’s examine some possibilities for the Thunder in 2019-20.

The Thunder’s two best lineups that include Westbrook also feature Paul George and Dennis Schroder at (+14.8 and +11.2 per 100 possessions, respectively), so it’s safe to assume that those three will remain in the rotation next season.

Ultimately, the Thunder need to add talent and depth to their roster. Here are three decisions this writer believes would improve the Thunder without adding significant salary.

Move Westbrook Off The Ball

Westbrook plays more like a traditional shooting guard than a point guard anyway, so maybe it’s time to embrace that. The most important point to emphasize here is that this move doesn’t require the Thunder to add players to their already bloated payroll. Schroder has been a below average three-point shooter over the course of his career, but showed promise this season with career highs in percentage (34.1 percent) and attempts (4.6 per game).

And what’s even more interesting is that Schroder is the point guard in the Thunder’s two most successful lineups from a plus-minus standpoint, neither of which includes Westbrook, reinforcing the idea that they must let Schroder initiate.

And with Westbrook off the ball, the team can deliberately run plays for him without hurting the rest of the team’s involvement. His stats may take a hit, but it is a more natural role for a player like Westbrook, who can attack with a viciousness rarely seen in professional sports. Furthermore, it should allow him to conserve energy and slightly dull down his responsibilities.

Procure A Stretch Big

Getting Westbrook off the ball should help the team’s spacing a bit, but as noted above, Schroder isn’t a knock-down three-point shooter. Steven Adams is an incredibly effective anchor, but he rarely shoots threes. If the starting lineup is rounded out by Paul George and Jerami Grant – two above average shooters – that’s something. But there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to shooting big men.

Westbrook and George are better when they have space to operate, which would only be available with certain lineups. Adding another big man who can shoot from deep would buoy their offense by providing them with an additional shooter, and one who pulls the opposing big man out of the paint.

Brook Lopez would be a great fit, but he will fetch a number of pricey offers. If Lopez is unattainable, there are other big men to examine. Dewayne Dedmon (Atlanta Hawks) is a strong option. He shot over 38 percent from deep on 3.4 attempts per game this season and will be an unrestricted free agent having made $6.3 million in 2018-19.

Even forwards who can play the five in smaller lineups like Noah Vonleh (New York Knicks) should be considered. Vonleh shot 33.6 percent from three on two attempts per game. Vonleh, like Dedmon, is a free agent. He would at least entertain negotiating a contract with a team like the Thunder if they were to offer a multi-year contract given that he has played for four teams in five seasons.

Either way, the Thunder should make this a priority. It opens up opportunities in the pick-and-roll and spaces the floor for the Thunder’s playmakers to operate more effectively. It would be an added bonus if the big man they hypothetically sign can also defend.

Draft Smartly

This one goes without saying, but is not always followed by NBA teams. The draft is one of the few guaranteed ways the Thunder have to add talent to a team whose longevity is built around a thirty-year old guard whose skills are predicated on his athleticism. They must capitalize on this window, and the draft is a key way to continue adding talent.

They possess the 21st overall pick, which could realistically net an impact player (Terrance Ferguson was selected 21st overall in 2017). They might be tempted to pair their pick with a future asset to move up a few spots, which is a fine move if they have eyes on a specific player. Guys that could be available at 21 include Brandon Clarke from Gonzaga, Louis King from Oregon, Cameron Johnson from UNC and Keldon Johnson from Kentucky.

Additionally, the Thunder must hope for internal improvements if they want to compete for a championship next year and beyond. Fortunately, they should expect the return of Andre Roberson – their best wing defender prior rupturing his patella tendon in January 2018. Roberson will only be 27 at the start of the 2019-20 season and should have a fair amount left in his tank, although he will almost certainly be rusty having missed a season and a half. Roberson’s return will be a sight for sore eyes for Thunder players and fans alike.

There is also Hamidou Diallo and the aforementioned Ferguson – both of whom are 21 years old – who should continue to develop. Ferguson showed promise this season taking steps in both shooting, defense and his ability to take on a starting role. And while Diallo’s rookie campaign was a bit underwhelming – he was always viewed as a bit unpolished – his athleticism (44.5-inch vertical jump) certainly sets him apart. The Thunder would be best served if both Diallo and Ferguson stuck around Oklahoma City this summer to work on their games.

For Russell Westbrook’s sake, the Thunder must improve. Unfortunately, their hands are tied as far as they ways they can do so is concerned. Ultimately, they need to add talent and versatility, regardless of positions of need. Westbrook’s legacy hangs in the balance.

Now is the time for Westbrook and the Thunder to figure out the best path forward because the criticism will only getting louder with each passing year.

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NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters

Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.

Matt John

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The Summer League is a time for many things.

It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.

The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.

For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.

Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.

“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”

Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.

“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”

Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.

“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”

There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.

“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”

As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.

“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”

Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.

“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”

Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.

“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”

Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.

“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.

“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”

Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.

Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.

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NBA Daily: Carsen Edwards Sending Good Vibrations in Las Vegas

Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards took Las Vegas by storm not only earning a multi-year contract but likely a significant role in Boston this coming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Las Vegas can be a scary place; just ask Carsen Edwards.

“Not to be dramatic, but I really thought I was about to die.”

Edwards, among a number of other players and NBA-related persons, found himself in the midst of two earthquakes – magnitude 6.7 and 7.1 – that rocked southern Nevada and California last week. “I was in my room by myself,” Edwards said, “and I’m on the 16th floor so, right then I’m thinking – and I know this sounds deep – how am I going to survive?”

Fortunately, for Edwards, his days reading about covering online betting odds in the Silver State may be numbered.

While the earthquakes may have shaken Las Vegas, the Purdue University product has sent the Boston Celtics his own good vibrations. Edwards has impressed mightily during his stint with the Summer League Celtics, so much so that, while fellow second-round pick Tremont Waters recently agreed to a two-way deal with Boston, the Celtics have reportedly are negotiating a full-time deal with the Edwards. And, while he has remained humble when questioned about his high-quality play, it’s hard to imagine that Edwards will see much more time in Las Vegas beyond the coming Summer League Tournament.

“My first experience was a blessing, man” Edwards told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so happy to be here, just to have this opportunity and put on that jersey and be out there.”

Edwards, a standout Boilermaker, has been a certified bucket-getter in his short Summer League tenure. Through four games (and two starts), the diminutive combo-guard has averaged 18 points to go along with 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal in just 23 minutes per contest. Edwards has gotten to his spots on the floor with ease – when it hasn’t been easy, he’s simply put his head down and bullied his way there – and he certainly hasn’t been afraid to pull up from deep.

Edwards has also come along as a shooter since his last showing in the NCAA tournament. In three seasons with Purdue, Edwards posted field goal and three-point percentages of 41.2% and 36.8%, respectively. Since Edwards has proven himself one of the Summer League’s best and most consistent shooters; he has shot 52% from the floor and 48.4% from three-point range.

“I just try to make the right decisions,” Edwards said. “I just try to get into my space, places where I’m comfortable.”

Despite his relative inexperience against NBA-level competition, a continued ascent for Edwards – and an end to his Summer League career after just his rookie appearance – shouldn’t be put out of the question as players and teams head into next season and beyond.

And, while he may not have wanted to slip into the second round of June’s 2019 NBA Draft, Edwards may have hit the jackpot in landing with Boston.

While Head Coach Brad Stevens has struggled with certain aspects of coaching, he has never had a problem with maximizing the production of his guards. 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, was a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2017, while Kyrie Irving, despite the reported unrest, posted arguably the two best statistical seasons of his career with the Celtics. Others, including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Jordan Crawford have flourished under his watch, and Edwards may be the next player to benefit from Stevens’ system.

Still, Edwards’ work is far from over, and he knows it. “It’s not the same [as in college],” he said as he pointed out that he still needed to focus on his defense, decisions making and consistency. “I’m still learning so much.”

“I know [the Boston Celtics] just want me to improve. Help the team win, but continue to try and improve and be consistent every game.”

Edwards isn’t the perfect prospect or one without his deficiencies by any means. They have yet to do so in the Summer League, and his strong, stocky build should help counteract this to a degree, but NBA competition will take advantage of Edwards’ 6-foot-flat height. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, Edwards is a score-first, pass later type of guard; while that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, given the role he should serve with the Celtics, Edwards’ passing ability must improve as he transitions to the NBA game.

“[NBA players] are more athletic, they have more length,” Edwards said. “Playing against those guys, it’s tough.”

As Edwards pointed out, it will, in fact, be tough for him. But, between the roster and coaching fit and his own talent, it’s as if everything has started to come together for the talented guard and it is there for the taking.

After his debut, Edwards noted his primary Summer League goal was to win. “I just want to make an impact on the team and just help us win,” Edwards said.

Should he take advantage of what’s in front of him, Edwards has the chance to be something special in the NBA, and he could help the Celtics do just that for a long time.

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NBA Daily: Karl-Anthony Towns Confident About What Lies Ahead

David Yapkowitz sits down with Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns to discuss the injury-filled finish to last season, the moves the organization made this offseason and what lies ahead.

David Yapkowitz

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After making a huge trade for Jimmy Butler one year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves had just broken one of the NBA’s longest playoff droughts when they made the postseason.

Fast forward to the present – Butler was traded, Tom Thibodeau got let go and the Wolves failed to reach the postseason with a 36-46 record.

There is room for optimism, however. Minnesota is still led by Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the top rising stars in the league with the prime of his career ahead of him. He’s arguably the best big man in the NBA at the young age of 23 years old.

The Wolves locked Towns up for the foreseeable future after he signed a Supermax contract extension back in September. He believes his game will definitely expand and grow as head coach Ryan Saunders continues to work with him.

“I feel that I’m going to be able to do a little more,” Towns told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive interview. “I got more freedom, I got a head coach that’s going to use my talents a little better. It’s going to be good.”

The major changes to the Wolves organization didn’t stop with the roster or the coaching staff. Thibodeau had a dual role as head coach and president of basketball operations. To replace his front office duties, the team brought in longtime executive Gersson Rosas, who comes from the Houston Rockets with 16 years of executive duty experience.

After taking over head coaching duties back in January, Saunders will now have a full offseason and training camp with the team to implement his style of play. All of this combined is something that Towns believes will be helpful to the team.

“It’s going to be big,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “I think not just only Ryan [Saunders] but having such a different culture, a different team. I think that’s going to be a big change for us. It’s going to be a very beneficial change.”

The Wolves are hoping part of that change is going to be a healthy roster. The team struggled with key injuries, especially late in the season when they were trying to mount a late playoff push. Robert Covington, who had emerged as a great compliment to Towns, missed a big part of the second half of the season. Jeff Teague was also in and out of the lineup all year.

Minnesota was firmly in the playoff picture for most of the season, even when they were hovering near the bottom, but the key injuries really took a toll as the year came winding down.

“We had a lot of change. That constitutes to that and our season. We didn’t make the playoffs because we just ran into the injury bug. Injuries really hit us and took our spark out of us,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We were in a great spot before the injuries, but it happens. That’s just how the league works. You got to find ways to win, we just came up a little short.”

Luckily, there are some added reinforcements on the way. The Wolves acquired highly touted prospect Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech in a draft-night trade. Culver has the ability to play multiple positions, especially on the defensive end. Although he is being held out of summer league, there’s no denying his potential.

In the second round, the Wolves drafted Jaylen Nowell, a high-scoring guard who shot 44 percent from three-point range last season at Washington. He’s only 19 years old and has plenty of unlocked potential as well for a second-round player.

“I see him [Culver] bringing a lot of versatility. I see him bringing length, I see him bringing a hungriness to the team, he wants to prove himself. We’re going to have a very, very good rookie on our hands,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “And let’s also not forget Jaylen Nowell. He’s a high IQ player and we’re very fortunate he fell to us.”

The draft isn’t the only area where the Wolves improved their roster. They made a couple of solid free agent moves as well, signing a trio of versatile forwards in Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh.

Bell has seen sporadic playing time the past few seasons with the Golden State Warriors, but he’s still young and has already shown an ability to switch defensively from guards to bigs. Layman had a solid year as one of Portland’s key contributors off the bench. Vonleh has bounced around the league a bit, but was one of the lone bright spots for the Knicks last season.

“They’re going to bring a lot of experience from great organizations,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “They bring a lot of playoff experience as well, and they’re also going to bring us a lot of talent. They’re all very versatile and they bring a lot to the table.”

And as the 2019 NBA Summer League is now in full swing with free agency winding down, Towns is happy with the steps the Wolves have taken. He’s confident in this team and what lies ahead.

“We’ve already taken the next step, there is no next step, we’ve already taken the next step,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve made the changes to our team that we needed to make and we’re ready to go.”

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