Pursuing Blake Griffin
With Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook agreeing to a renegotiated contract yesterday to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder for at least two more seasons, the speculation about his immediate future and a possible trade will sort of fade out for a while.
However, with Westbrook on-board, there is a new rumor in Oklahoma City to watch and that is the Thunder’s potential pursuit of L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin.
On the surface it seems foolish and somewhat unlikely to believe that Griffin lands in Oklahoma City anytime soon. However, there are many in the NBA that believe if the Clippers cannot get over the top this season, there will be big changes made to ensure the Clippers do not lose star guard Chris Paul to free agency next summer.
Clippers president and head coach Doc Rivers has said all the right things about Griffin and his future, suggesting that the team would like to see Griffin retire as a Clipper. The problem is, in order for the Clippers to really make a splashy upgrade, they’ll have to part with someone and with Griffin having the option to be an unrestricted free agent next July, will the Clippers look at their options if things don’t go as expected or let things play out and possibly lose their star forward for nothing in return?
The Thunder have a truckload of assets to offer in trade, or simply the ability to be the threat in free agency next July that the Golden State Warriors were this summer.
Thunder sources say there were no promises made to Westbrook on a pursuit of any specific player, but there continues to be talk that the Thunder’s number one target next summer will be Griffin if he indeed opts for free agency.
The Thunder won’t be alone if Griffin hits the open market. The Boston Celtics have long had eyes for Griffin, and there has been talk that the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls would also make a hard push at Griffin. Coincidentally, both teams have tradable assets now if the Clippers decide they want to consider a trade.
Last year, Griffin was a popular name around the trade deadline as teams tried to tempt the Clippers with offers only to be turned away.
There was some renewed talk around the draft, but as Rivers pointed out recently, he’s made it clear to teams that talks involving Griffin are a non-starter for the team. However, like many things in the NBA, if enough games go the wrong way that stance could change.
To say this season is a big one for the Clippers is an understatement. Both Griffin and Paul have the option to be unrestricted free agents after the year and as we saw play out this July, jumping ship to a new team closer to a championship is not out of the question – especially with more than a dozen teams having the ability to get to a maximum salary slot next July.
If the Western Conference turns out to be the one-team show many are expecting with Kevin Durant now part of the Warriors, is it such a huge stretch to believe one or both Clippers consider life in the Eastern Conference? If so, at some point do the Clippers consider their options?
Cap Space As A Tool
It’s fairly common to think about salary cap space as simply a means to sign free agents; however, as we’ve seen play out over the last few years, having cap space and a lot of it can mean much more than just the chance to steal a player from someone else’s roster.
Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets used some of their cap space to renegotiate contracts for their stars (James Harden in Houston and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City).
Keep in mind, not every player is eligible for a renegotiation – only contracts that are four or more seasons can be renegotiated. And they can only be renegotiated after the third anniversary of its signing. This includes extensions or a previous renegotiation, assuming there were raises greater than 4.5 percent in the deal.
While renegotiating a contract has always been part of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, this summer represented the first time that teams had ample cap space to consider using it in this way. Normally, teams have $10 to $12 million and need that space to add players. With the huge windfall in cap space this summer and even more coming next summer, opting to use that space to re-work a star player’s deal is not only a smart use of the money, it may end up sparking a whole new process teams consider using as a means to avoid losing a player to free agency.
The current thought process is that in order for a player to truly maximize their earning potential, they have to get to unrestricted free agency. However, as the Rockets and Thunder did with their deals, both teams got their star player to the new max levels a year or two earlier than their expected free agency. In Westbrook’s case, he’ll net some $8.7 million more over the life of his new deal than if he had waited for unrestricted free agency and signed for the same length.
Historically, we’ve seen teams willing to trade away players to open up space to pursue a free agent, often dumping long-term contracts in favor of ending deals or trading away contract dollars for draft picks.
Will teams fearful of losing a star player start looking at moving off money to create cap space renegotiate deals?
With two star players agreeing to those kinds of deals, it seems that a seldom considered tool in the rule books might actually turn out to be the missing piece to retaining a player teams have sought for some time.
Admittedly, the huge jump in what a max contract looks like today won’t remain that way indefinitely, but for those players currently on old NBA economy contracts, the ability to immediately add 25 to 30 percent to their deal right now might be the advantage the home team needs and it may inspire a little more pre-planning than we’re used to seeing.
For years, the concept of cap space was always about what a team could add from the free agent pool or in trade. With two major players on-board for longer deals, cap space to renegotiate likely becomes a bigger part of the process, especially with so many teams looking at space going forward and not nearly enough free agents to really spend it on.
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Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.