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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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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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