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NBA Sunday: It’s All On Westbrook Now

With Paul George and Carmelo joining Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are the most interesting team in the NBA, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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The Oklahoma City Thunder just might be the most interesting team in basketball.

Sorry, LeBron.

As recently as 10 days ago, sources familiar with the thinking of the New York Knicks front office floated the potential of the Knicks waiting out a potential Carmelo deal until December. Now, of course, we know that Anthony wanted no part of beginning the season in New York, so much so that he let it be known that he would be willing to accept a trade to either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Anthony era is officially over in New York City, and in its wake is what many consider to have been the most entertaining offseason in NBA history. Considering the star players that changed teams, it’s difficult to argue.

But what makes the Anthony trade even more interesting is the fact that he now finds himself teamed with Russell Westbrook—one of the most polarizing players in the NBA today.

* * * * * *

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but Russell Westbrook’s potential to be great has always been in question. We quietly wondered whether he was superior to Derrick Rose and once wondered whether the Thunder should have tried to package him and move him in exchange for Chris Paul back when the point guard was being moved on from New Orleans.

Over the years, many have opined that Westbrook was the NBA version of a bucking bronco and that the failure of both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan to tame him cost the Thunder Kevin Durant.

While there may be some truth there, Westbrook at least temporarily silenced his critics with his performance last season. He admirably led the Thunder to 47 wins and became the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season. Neither of those facts, nor the fact that Westbrook was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2016-17 season, was met with any sort of universal acceptance of Westbrook being a truly “valuable” player. Some believe that Westbrook is a truly special player who galvanizes his teammates with a willingness to win only seen by the likes of the Allen Iversons and Kobe Bryants of the world while others think that he’s a selfish gunslinger who longs for the spotlight.

Any number of advanced metrics could reasonably lead one to the conclusion that Westbrook’s accomplishing of the single-season triple-double average was a result of an incredibly high usage rate and a conscious pursuit that was in the forefront of both his and his teammates’ mind.

Truth be told, deep down inside, Westbrook probably wanted to win the MVP award as soon as Durant let it be known that he was taking his talents to Oakland. Even leading up to the announcement, many had opined that Westbrook’s reckless abandon and undisciplined play helped the Thunder yield the 3-1 series lead they held over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, and if the Thunder simply managed to win that series, everything would have been different.

Instead, Durant’s decision to leave was seen as a rebuke to Westbrook, who he is as a player and his style of basketball. At the time, the implication was that Durant didn’t think he could win with Westbrook. For someone as fiery and fierce as he, Durant’s decision to bolt and the subsequent questioning as to the reasons why was the quintessential poking of a bear with a stick.

In the end, Westbrook roared.

No matter what happens from here, a part of Westbrook’s legacy will be that he averaged a triple-double for an entire season and he was named the Most Valuable Player the year after the one who was deemed to be his Batman abandoned him.

But now, as Westbrook enters his 10th NBA season, the question that will be answered this coming season is whether or not his demons have been exorcised.

* * * * * *

Indeed, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder will be the most interesting team in basketball.

From afar, it appears that the Thunder are best equipped to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining Russell Westbrook, scoring should be relatively easy. The Thunder ranked 11th in the league in scoring last season and 16th in offensive efficiency—both should improve.

Defensively, with Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams joining Westbrook and George, the Thunder have a few players that will battle defensively. The thought of slowing down two of the three of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson is something that can at least be deemed as possible. With its newfound scoring prowess, the team should expect to have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

Aside from the obvious pleasure of imagining a battle between the two teams, what remains to be seen whether and to what extent Westbrook will be willing to yield touches and shot opportunities to Anthony and George. Last season, the MVP averaged 24 shot attempts per game.

In “clutch” situations, which is defined as the final five minutes of a game that’s within five or fewer points, Westbrook attempted 184 shots. Tied for second were DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom had 134 such attempts. In other words, Westbrook took 37 percent more clutch shots than the players who tied for second-most.

Simply put, Westbrook was the alpha and omega of everything the Thunder did and, more importantly, what they believed they could be. Whether or not he still believes it necessary for him to dominate the ball the way he did last season will go a long way toward determining the success of the team’s new triumvirate.

And believe it or not, the way that Westbrook conducts himself and plays with the ball (or chooses to play without it) will probably answer the question as to whether or not Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City has affected his mental approach to the game.

* * * * * *

In all likelihood, the Warriors are on their way to being the NBA’s next dynasty. But if the Roman Empire and Ming Dynasty ended, so too will that of Golden State.

Not many pay attention to the nuances of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, but with the repeater tax penalties that were implemented, the reign of the Warriors, at least as we currently know them, may be short-lived.

By virtue of Stephen Curry’s monstrous $201 million extension and the club’s re-signing of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors are looking at a luxury tax bill of about $43 million for the 2017-18 season. With Durant potentially opting out of his current contract next summer, the Warriors will likely be faced with the prospect of having to dole out new contracts for Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.

With $30 million annual salaries the norm in today’s NBA, unless each of the aforementioned three are willing to take substantial pay cuts, re-signing each of them at their fair market value, with the repeater tax penalties, could cost the Warriors over $500 million in luxury tax payments for just the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-2021 seasons alone.

Even if the Warriors do manage to win the next two championships, the sheer economics of keeping the team intact make it seem that the team’s re-signing of Klay Thompson is improbable unless both Durant (next summer, if he opts out) and Thompson (in 2019) agree to take far below their fair market value in subsequent contracts.

At this point, though, it’s fair to guess that the NBA’s repeater tax and the economics of keeping the team intact could mean that this current iteration of Warriors may only be together for two more seasons.

If Westbrook (28 years old), George (27 years old) and Anthony (33 years old) were to stay together and have some pieces added around them, whether it be this season or either of the following two, they appear to have an adequate foundation capable of assuming the throne.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed—not even the partnership of the trio in Oklahoma City.

In the end, above all else, that’s probably what makes the Thunder more interesting than everyone else.

Collectively, their team seems to have so much potential, but with Westbrook not having signed the $207 million extension tendered to him, George’s known desire to relocate to Los Angeles and Anthony’s friendship with both Chris Paul and LeBron James, the three may represent the best trio of mercenaries ever assembled.

With each of the three having something to play for, and each of the three holding contract options over their 2018-19 season, the partnership between Westbrook, George and Anthony may never mature to the point where they are actually able to accomplish something great.

In some ways, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder is a shotgun wedding, but the participants could conceivably end up living happily ever after.

Whether they do or not may ultimately depend on the reigning league MVP.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly think that storyline is much more interesting than watching LeBron James win the Eastern Conference for the eighth straight year.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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