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NBA PM: Oklahoma City Had The Best Overall Offseason

Several teams made good moves this summer, but the Thunder had this year’s best overall offseason, writes Jesse Blancarte.

Jesse Blancarte

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A lot of big trades, signings and other acquisitions have taken place this summer. There are a few notable open ended situations lingering out there, including Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony.  However, we are far along in the offseason that it can be said with reasonable certainty which team had the best overall offseason. Despite some strong competition, the honor this year has to go to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Everything starts with the trade for Paul George. Yes, George could leave after this season in free agency. Yes, George’s camp has made it clear he has his eyes set on Los Angeles. Guess what? Considering what the Thunder had to give up to acquire George, it almost doesn’t even matter.

Let’s revisit the deal that landed George in Oklahoma City. The Indiana Pacers agreed to send George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Oladipo is a talented player who can do a little bit of everything on offense and is, unfortunately, inconsistent on defense.

Oladipo is still just 25 years old and still has room to become the impact two-way player so many envisioned when he was selected second overall in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic. However, Oladipo is set to make $21,000,000 annually through the 2020-21 season. That’s a lot of money for a player that is statistically trending in the wrong direction (though a big part of that had to do with playing alongside the ball-dominant Russell Westbrook), and doesn’t put full effort into both ends of the court. It’s also notable that the Thunder in fact save money in this deal, which is an underrated part of this lopsided deal. In moving Oladipo’s salary, the Thunder will be well-positioned in terms of cap flexibility should Westbrook decline the Thunder’s extension offer and George opts to take his talents to L.A. after this upcoming season. In effect, the Thunder gave up a young and talented player whose inconsistent defense and annual salary arguably makes him a negative asset.

Meanwhile, Sabonis is an intriguing prospect who progressively looked overmatched as he went further into his rookie season. This isn’t a major concern considering how even some of the best players in the league struggled significantly in their respective rookie seasons. In 20.1 minutes per game over 81 regular season contests, Sabonis averaged 5.9 points, one assists, 3.6 rebounds and 0.4 blocks, while shooting 39.9 percent from the floor and 32.1 percent from three-point range. Sabonis may have not had a great rookie season, but the talent is there and it’s not hard to understand why the Pacers were interested in trading for him.

Notably, the Thunder did not have to surrender any draft picks or other assets outside of Oladipo and Sabonis to land George. That’s disappointing in a vacuum but is made even worse when we consider that other teams, including the Boston Celtics, had offered trade package with a wide range of talented veterans and draft picks, as well as the fact that there was no major urgency in making this particular deal with the Thunder. The point is, in a trade environment where the Thunder had less to offer than other teams and no hard deadlines that would force Indiana to take the deal or lose it forever, they walked away with the prize without breaking the bank, which should be commended.

Like the Minnesota Timberwolves, who landed Jimmy Butler for a similarly lopsided trade, the Thunder nailed their major transaction this offseason. Unlike the Timberwolves, the Thunder have also nailed all of the smaller matters they needed to take care of.

The Thunder needed a starting caliber power forward who could stretch the floor, especially after trading away Sabonis. The rest of the league apparently didn’t get the memo that states Patrick Patterson is an underrated power forward who can stretch the floor and is a versatile defender. The Thunder signed Patterson to a three-year, $16.3 million deal, which is well below what other power forwards like Taj Gibson received this summer. Patterson and George add a lot of defensive versatility to a team that has Steven Adams at center and is bringing back defensive ace Andre Roberson. This team is going to be a defensive force and Patterson will likely play a big part in that.

Oklahoma City also addressed a major weakness by signing Raymond Felton to a one-year, $2.3 million contract. Felton isn’t a starting-caliber point guard but is more than adequate as a back up and is a nice value on this contract. The Thunder also added a nice prospect in Terrance Ferguson, selecting him with the 21st pick in this year’s draft. Ferguson is an athletic and talented wing-prospect who could develop into an impact player on both ends of the court. Ferguson skipped college to play professionally for the Adelaide 36ers of Australia’s National Basketball League and failed to put up major numbers. However, his combination of shooting, skill, length and athleticism makes him a nice long term addition to a Thunder team that may be rebuilding after this upcoming season, depending on what George and Westbrook decide to do.

The trade for George was a grand slam regardless of the fact that there’s a real risk that he ends up leaving after this season. If the season goes well and he and Westbrook thrive together, the Thunder could lock both players up to long term deals. If George and Westbrook decide to move on, the Thunder will have plenty of cap space to acquire assets, along with some young players to rebuild around. Considering the lack of overall flexibility and tools the Thunder had to work with entering the offseason, it’s incredible how much they were able to achieve. Other teams made significant progress this offseason as well, but no other team did quite as much as Oklahoma City.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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