In their strangest of times, the response begins in the strangest of places.
The Thunder, absent from the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2010 while contemplating what could have been if not for the Russell Westbrook knee injury, are in the lottery again — a land they appeared to have left behind.
James Harden got traded, Westbrook got hurt, Oklahoma City got beat in five games in the semifinals and, now, the Thunder will be picking 12th on June 27. Of all the developments that would have been difficult to imagine nine months ago, this is the one they welcome.
Or sort of welcome. The ideal OKC outcome would have been for the Raptors to land in the top three on lottery night. Toronto would have kept this pick and had the choice set to be conveyed to the Thunder carried over to 2014 in what is shaping up as a much better Draft. But Toronto held at 12, the protection became irrelevant, and the Thunder would have to be satisfied by having one of the best teams in the league and still being able to add a late lottery pick.
No. 12, part of OKC’s three picks in the first 32, is still a good spot to address needs (or at least uncertainties) with Westbrook coming off a knee injury and Kevin Martin heading into free agency. OKC is in the right range for Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk if it wants an offensive-oriented big man to offset Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, or inexperienced German point guard Dennis Schroeder to develop behind Westbrook. They could also nab scoring guards C.J. McCollum from Lehigh or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from Georgia in case Martin prices himself out of a return. (The NBA.com mock draft has Olynyk going to Loud City.)
The Thunder liked the fit with Martin accepting a reserve role, making his spot next season more a financial issue more than anything. They’re encouraged by what 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb did in the NBA D-League, so going shooting guard when they will have at least one backup returning seems unlikely. Bad Draft or not, OKC has options with picks, prospects and veterans, along with a history of an aggressive approach. GM Sam Presti with options and in win-now mode is potential trouble for the rest of the league.
The pick started in Toronto, went to Houston in the Kyle Lowry trade of July 2012 and then from the Rockets to the Thunder in the October 2012 Harden blockbuster. When the Raptors did not beat long odds in the lottery to finish in the top three, the choice was handed over to Oklahoma City.
“I think it’s somewhat hypothetical because the draft is so much more art than science,” Presti said of the bad break of getting the pick a year before it likely increases in value. “But our organization, we’ve always looked at the draft as another opportunity to find a way to improve, whether it’s marginal or on a bigger scale, and we’ll try to look at every opportunity available to us at that time.”
Especially in their organization. Presti made a hard call on Westbrook, with a limited body of work at point guard, at No. 4 in 2008 and got a huge payout. The same night, he gambled again at 24 with Ibaka and it paid off. A year later, he nailed the Draft again by taking Harden third.
This year, the Thunder also have their own pick, No. 29, and also No. 32, a choice that started in Charlotte.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – When a couple small-market Western Conference teams battled for seven grueling games in the semifinals of the playoffs two years ago, who could have foreseen that they would meet again this postseason — after each was forced to deal with the inescapable repercussions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement?
Rudy Gay was injured and out of that postseason two years ago. But at only 24 and locked into a lucrative contract, the No. 8 pick of the 2006 NBA Draft was a central figure for the fast-rising Memphis Grizzlies. Yet on Jan. 30, 2013, Gay, the team’s leading scorer, was traded to Toronto.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder were coming off a loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals when, days before this season began, Thunder general manager Sam Presti dealt former No. 3 pick James Harden, just 23 and an integral part of the team’s success, to Houston.
In a postseason marked by a surprising domination of small-market teams — all four teams remaining in the playoffs are in the bottom half of the league in market size — the second-round showdown between the Grizzlies and Thunder (won by the Grizzlies in five games) demonstrated just what many teams have to do to thrive in the era of the still-new CBA.
“With the rules set up the way they are, there’s minimal room for error,” said Jason Levien, the first-year CEO of the Grizzlies under a new ownership group led by one of the world’s youngest tech billionaires, Robert Pera. “You’ve got to be very thoughtful in your approach to how you build your team, how you build a roster, and you’ve got to keep the cap and the tax in mind.”
Avoiding the taxes
Cap and tax are at the forefront of the strategy the Oklahoma City management team is using under the ownership of billionaire energy mogul Clay Bennett. Presti, who has managed to re-sign superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, plus emerging power forward Serge Ibaka, to long-term deals that fit within the team’s cap structure, chose to hold firm to a policy of not commenting on matters related to the CBA.
In Memphis, where the Grizzlies will look to start digging out of a 2-0 hole against the San Antonio Spurs in Saturday’s Game 3 of the West finals (9 p.m., ESPN), Levien has defended the trade of Gay (for veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince and youngsters Ed Davis and Austin Daye) as being made to improve the team.
While that might be true — Memphis won a franchise-best 56 games after a strong start with Gay — the Grizzlies also got out of the $37.2 million owed to Gay over the next two seasons. Memphis will pay Prince, Davis and Daye a combined $26 million over that span ($22 million if Daye is not retained beyond next season). With Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley owed a combined $40.9 million next season, keeping Gay and a payroll under the tax line (this season it was $70.3 million) would have been a near-impossibility. (more…)
HOUSTON – From general manager Sam Presti to coach Scott Brooks down to the equipment manager, the Thunder have made it abundantly clear that no single player on the roster can replace Russell Westbrook.
But that doesn’t mean one guy can’t be expected to do more.
In the first game of the Post-R.W. Era, Kevin Martin checked out early and was a major reason why Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City teammates ended up hanging by their fingernails onto a 104-101 Game 3 win.
Though he finished the night with a dozen points, Martin shot an abysmal 0-for-6 in the second half and did not score at all in the final 37 minutes of the game. That is hardly the kind of clutch performance the Thunder need from the player who first came into fill the gap of the departed James Harden and now is needed even more with Westbrook sidelined for the playoffs with a surgically repaired knee.
“Just missed some shots,” Martin said with a shrug. “That’s how I look at it. Hopefully next game, I can hit some shots in the second half, take more responsibility and try to get going early, taking some pressure off K.D.”
Martin definitely knows how to put the ball into the basket at the Toyota Center, having averaged more than 20 points per game in three seasons with the Rockets. But he has made just 11 of 35 shots in the series, rarely looking comfortable.
Like Harden, one of Martin’s strength is an ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. But he made just two trips to the stripe in Game 3 and none in the second half when OKC needed to stop the Rockets from charging back. He mostly hung around the perimeter playing passively.
“He scores better when he’s moving,” said Brooks. “We’ve got to keep him moving…Kevin is not somebody who can be very productive if he’s just waiting for the ball and for shots to come to him. He’s got to make things happen.”
Martin made plenty happen when he first arrived in OKC in the blockbuster deal for just four days before the start of the regular season. He averaged 15.9 points in November, but his scoring pace has dropped steadily with each passing month. That was all right when the Thunder were humming along and finishing with the best record in the Western Conference to claim the No. 1 seed.
But at the moment that Westbrook went under the knife, there was an immediate need for the nine-year veteran to pump up his offensive contributions so that Durant doesn’t have to score a career playoff high 41 points every night along with shouldering the primary ball-handling duties.
There’s no doubt that OKC can finish off the youthfully exuberant Rockets, either by sweep tonight or in a few more days, and advance. However, as the competition level rises in the ensuing rounds of the playoffs, there will be urgency to get more than an occasional blue light special from K-Mart.
“I know what they brought me here for,” said Martin. “So just continue to take shots and drive to the hole, take pressure off K.D., just be the scorer they need me to be.”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Forget about The Finals, for now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have to worry about getting out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, now that we know they’ll have to finish the Houston Rockets without one half of their superstar dynamic duo. Russell Westbrook needs surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee and could be out anywhere from four to six weeks, depending on how quickly he recovers.
“We hope [he comes back in the playoffs],” Kevin Durant said. “Our firs thing is to make sure he gets healthy and gets that knee back right. We’re not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he’s healthy and his knee is right. That’s our only concern right now.”
There is a time frame that would allow Westbrook to return later in the playoffs, perhaps late in the conference finals or the start of The Finals.
But again, the Thunder will have to make it that far without the league’s resident iron man. Love him or hate him, no one can question Westbrook’s durability, before now. He hadn’t missed a game during his five-year career, having played in 394 consecutive regular season games and all 45 playoff games the Thunder have played during that same span.
But he won’t be on the floor for Saturday night, joining a long list of game changers who are watching this NBA postseason from the bench of or beyond due to injury. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee and Danny Granger are all watching their teams toil without them in this postseason. They all serve as human reminders for their peers that your next false step could be your last, of this season.
But none of those aforementioned stars plays on a team that had the supposed inside tack to get back to the conference finals and then The Finals, for that rematch with the Miami Heat. Westbrook’s injury opens the door in the Western Conference for the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors to start eyeballing the calendar in early June for a possible trip to The Finals of their own. Shoot, even the Los Angeles Lakers, down 2-0 to the Spurs in their first round series, can start dreaming about doing the unthinkable.
Simply put, the West is wide open now.
“Kevin Durant needs to take the Carmelo Anthony approach,” said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “Take around 25-30 shots per game, his team already has a 2-0 lead. The one thing about professional sports, and life for that matter, when opportunity knocks, you have to seize it. So trust me, all of the teams in the Western Conference, their ears perked up today. They feel like they have chance to advance.”
The Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the West this season but entered the postseason with plenty of worthy challengers who did not plan on the fragile nature of things to swing in their favor with Westbrook’s injury. No offense to Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher or anyone else in a Thunder uniform, but it’s Durant and Russell Westbrook who do the headlining. In fact, the Thunder have never had to work for an extended period of time without both of their stars in the lineup.
Trying to navigate these rough playoff waters with only one half of that devastating combination sounds more like mission impossible for a Thunder team that, truth be told, spent much of this season learning how to operate without the former third member of their superstar crew, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden.
Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Scott Brooks and Durant all did their part to rally the troops today after the news spread of the severity of Westbrook’s injury.
“Our team as a whole, we’ve got a resilient group of guys, a lot of character within that locker room and a group that enjoys playing together and has been through some adversities over the last several years that they’ve been together.” Presti said. “We’d expect them to adjust, come together and have different guys step in and play well collectively. Once we were able to gather all of the necessary information and everything was accumulated, it was an easy decision for our medical team.”
The decision on how to play in Westbrook’s absence won’t be nearly as easy. The Rockets’ defensive strategy shifts now from worrying about picking between two lethal performers to focusing solely on Durant and daring that Thunder supporting cast to beat them. Westbrook averaged 24 points and seven assists through those first two games while also serving, as always, as the Thunder’s primary facilitator.
Jackson’s been solid in spurts of relief this season. Doing it daily, however, could be more than he’s capable of handling. And even if does acquit himself well in the first round, either Chris Paul or Mike Conley and their teams, will be waiting on the Thunder’s replacement for Westbrook in the next round.
Durant insists that the Thunder’s “Next Man Step Up” mantra applies in this case, just as it does any other.
“We have good depth on our team,” Durant said. “Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment. He has been working his tail off ever since he got here. So he’s ready for this. We just have to rally behind him and know that we have to give him confidence, because he’s going to make mistakes like everybody else. But we just have to keep encouraging him.”
All the courage and encouragement in the world won’t make Jackson into Westbrook. Their is certainly survival after losing a superstar. The Lakers (Kobe) and Celtics (Rondo) are proof of that much.
But we’re talking about a team focused on competing for championships, not just surviving.
“It doesn’t matter who we throw out there. We’re a 15-man team and we still are, even with Russell being hurt,” Brooks said. “We’re a 15-man team and everybody believes in each other and that’s what you have to do. You don’t win in this league with one player. You don’t win with five or six players, you win it with your team. We talk about that and we believe in the things that we talk about. We don’t jus throw it out because it looks cool on a t-shirt or a billboard. We believe in each other, we believe in what we do and we take pride in it and we’re proud about what we do.”
We’re all going to find out exactly what the Thunder do when they are forced to play a man down.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: Is it 2005 all over again? The Mavs and Spurs locked up in a classic battle that reminded us of their showdowns of the mid-2000s and, much like those classic matchups, Tim Duncan stepped in the wayback machine and went bonkers on Dallas. Duncan flirted with a 20-20 game (he ended up with 28 points and 19 rebounds) and the Spurs had to sweat out a Vince Carter miss at the buzzer, but San Antonio got the win and clinched a playoff berth, too.
Duncan slowly finding his rhythm– Although Tim Duncan had averaged 15.8 ppg and 9.9 rpg heading into last night’s game against the Mavs, he didn’t quite feel like his game was back where it could be. Slowed by a knee contusion suffered on Feb. 2, Duncan has been working his way back into form the last few games. Last night, he really hit his stride, going for 28 points and 19 rebounds to pace the Spurs’ to a close win and said after the game he can tell he’s starting to turn the corner on the court, writes Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News:
After missing seven of his first 10 shots Thursday, Duncan made nine of his final 10 and finished with 28 points. He was one rebound shy of his second 20-20 game of the season, finishing with 19.
It was his most productive game since returning Feb.13 from a left knee contusion suffered on Feb. 2.
“It’s finally starting to come back,” Duncan said. “My shot’s not there like I want it to be. Other than that, I feel great. I feel healthy. The pain is gone. I’m starting to feel like I can actually play the game.”
Felton hears it from Blazers fans — After one month in last season’s lockout-shortened, 66-game campaign, the Blazers were 12-8 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. Their new point guard at the time, Raymond Felton, was averaging a solid 13.3 ppg, 6.7 apg and shooting 42 percent from the field. But after that solid start, both he and the Blazers went in the tank, finishing the season 28-38 and, by season’s end, Felton was the scapegoat (rightly or wrongly) for all that ailed Portland. With Felton returning to Portland last night as a member of the Knicks, he had some strong words for the Blazers before the game and was primed to show his skills, but that isn’t quite how it all worked out, writes Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
After he arrived into Portland in the wee hours Thursday morning, Raymond Felton checked into a Portland hotel with his New York Knicks teammates and promptly exchanged text messages with Trail Blazers reserve Nolan Smith.
“I’m ready to go,” Felton texted Smith. “Enjoy the show.”
Actually, it was more like a circus.
With a chorus of boos echoing around the Rose Garden every time Felton touched the ball and the Blazers cruising to a convincing 105-90 victory over the Knicks’ junior varsity team, basketball turned into a secondary form of entertainment Thursday night.
An electric sellout crowd of 20,636 flashed gigantic posters with enlarged pictures of donuts and hamburgers and R-rated messages aimed at a player who last year challenged his detractors to visit his Pearl District apartment building if they had a problem with him. Felton was heavily booed during pregame introductions and every time he touched the ball, from the moment the Knicks won the opening tip to the final horn.
Over the summer, as he promoted his youth basketball camp in South Carolina, Felton pledged to score 50 points on the Blazers during his next visit to Portland. But his Rip City return didn’t exactly go as he planned.
And every turnover and errant shot was celebrated by Blazermaniacs, who seemed to relish Felton’s miscues as much they did the Blazers’ successes. The never-had-a-chance air-ball three-point attempt in the first quarter. The pull-up jumper that missed everything but the backboard in the second quarter. The grotesque pass into the lane picked off by the Blazers that led to a Damian Lillard fast-break layup just before halftime. The driving layup that was emphatically blocked by LaMarcus Aldridge in the third quarter.
“It was what I expected,” Felton said. “Some boos — some boos the whole time, actually. It was what I expected. It was funny. It made me laugh. But basically we were trying to get a win tonight.”
While Felton drew much of the pregame hype of headlines, Lillard upstaged his counterpart in every aspect but boos. In a performance that summed up his runaway NBA Rookie of the Year candidacy, Lillard was a blur of swished three-pointers, driving layups and pretty passes. He made 11 of 18 shots and finished with 26 points and 10 assists in yet another historic performance.
Mavs react to ex-teammate Jones’ defense — The topic du jour yesterday around the NBA was the late-game defense the Hawks’ Dahntay Jones played on Kobe Bryant in Atlanta’s win Wednesday night. Jones appeared to slide his foot under Bryant as he took a potential game-tying shot and Bryant appeared to land on Jones’ foot as he came down. Bryant ended up with a sprained ankle and, by Thursday evening, the NBA ruled that Jones did, in fact, not give Bryant adequate space to get his shot off. Jones spent the early part of the season on the Dallas Mavericks, and some of his ex-teammates chimed in on the play to Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News:
“It was a 50-50 play,” said Brandan Wright.
Added Darren Collison: “Tough play. That’s all I can say about it.”
There also were a few jokes that it was Jones’ best play for the Mavericks all season. But coach Rick Carlisle didn’t want to hear about the possibility of Bryant being out for an extended period and the Mavericks having a chance to overtake the Lakers in the playoff race.
“I didn’t see the play,” Carlisle said. “And I’m not going to get involved with anything having to do about saying anything happening with Kobe Bryant. I think our owner showed what can happen with that 10 days ago.”
That comment ellicited laughter from the coach and the media assembled before Thursday’s game against the Spurs. When Mark Cuban suggested the hypothetical scenario where the Lakers could amnesty Bryant, he came back with 38 points against the Mavericks.
“We really have to focus on our own thing,” Carlisle said. “Whatever happens externally is going to happen. We control our situation by putting the force and the attitude and the effort into it at as much of a high level as we can. And we got to try to take care of our own games. At the end, if we’ve done our job, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
As Wright said: “I doubt he’ll miss much time.”
Thibodeau again clarifies Rose’s status — It almost sounded like Derrick Rose would play in the Bulls game against the Warriors tonight. But then Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau clarified his stance after Thursday’s practice at Oracle Arena in Oakland and said that Rose’s playing remains a day-to-day situation, writes K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Thibodeau said it’s “unlikely” Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose would play. Thibodeau said Rose “went pretty hard” during the entire practice.
Thibodeau understands as well as anyone how every update he offers on Rose is parsed and analyzed, contributing to the media frenzy. So when he didn’t immediately rule Rose out, he fielded several follow-up questions before adding “nothing has changed” and the “unlikely” status.
Rose has made clear he could miss the entire season after knee surgery.
“It could be in a couple days. It could be in a week. I don’t know when it is. He doesn’t know when it is,” Thibodeau said of Rose’s return. “He has to feel real comfortable and feel the explosion is there. He’s made great progress. We don’t know when that time is. We’ll have a better idea the more we see him go.
“We just have to keep being patient and let him work through it. Each day he feels a little better. He has to have a few days where he feels really good about where he is. It’s not that he’s not feeling good. He’s just not quite there. We’ll know when he gets there.”
One thing Thibodeau stressed is that game outcomes are not affecting Rose’s decision. In other words, the 42-point loss isn’t influencing him to return to help or to turn away from the debacle.
“Nope, nope, nope, nope,” Thibodeau said. “This guy is well-prepared for this. He’s handled his part great. He’s not going to be influenced by anything but when he’s ready. That part is clear.”
Deep bond unites Magic’s Hennigan, Thunder’s Presti — First-year Magic GM Rob Hennigan had his work cut out for him when he took the job in Orlando: a Dwight Howard trade situation to navigate and, once that was over, a rebuilding effort that would take several seasons to complete. Luckily, Hennigan had a good mentor in OKC GM Sam Presti, whom Hennigan had worked for and known since their days with the Spurs’ front office in 2004. Hennigan followed Presti to OKC in 2007 and had been there until last summer, when Orlando hired him to direct the team’s new direction. Josh Robbinsof the Orlando Sentinel has a great feature on the deep relationship that Hennigan and Presti share:
Rob Hennigan made one of the most important decisions of his life here, just a short walk from where the Orlando Magic will play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night.
He made that decision with Sam Presti, a friend and mentor, by his side.
It was 2008, and Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, offered Hennigan a job in the Thunder front office. They walked through downtown, discussing the type of team Presti wanted to build, talking about the meaningful connection Presti wanted to create between the franchise and the city. They eventually reached the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site where, 13 years earlier, Timothy McVeigh detonated explosives in front the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
“At the end of the day,” Hennigan remembers now, “I had so much trust and faith in Sam that I wanted to join him and join the organization to try and build something special.”
That belief and confidence in Presti helped lead Hennigan to where he is today, the general manager of the Magic. Presti gave Hennigan two of his big breaks: a coveted internship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2004 and a position as director of college/international player personnel with the Thunder four years later.
Hennigan marveled at Presti’s work ethic, his exacting attention to detail and his systematic, disciplined approach to decision-making.
In 2007, the Seattle SuperSonics hired Presti to be their general manager.
A year later, the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, and that’s when Presti chose to hire Hennigan.
In 2010, Presti promoted Hennigan to assistant general manager for player personnel.
Then, late last May or in early June, Hennigan and his wife, Marissa, were sitting in a restaurant when his phone rang. It was Presti on the other line, telling Hennigan that Magic CEO Alex Martins had just called. Martins wanted to interview Hennigan for the Magic’s GM job.
Hennigan couldn’t believe it.
But it was true.
In the days that followed, Presti helped Hennigan organize his thoughts for the job interviews.
In June, the Magic hired Hennigan.
Hennigan, 30, and Presti, 36, still talk and text all the time, more about life in general than their jobs.
After seven years working together, Hennigan already has learned lessons from him.
“I think the most important thing I learned from Sam is to always put the best interests of the organization above everything else,” Hennigan says. “It takes great discipline, conviction and patience to do that, but Sam has showcased an ability to do that as well as anyone.”
ICYMI of the night: They don’t call Tim Duncan the “Big Fundamental” for nothing, kids:
If Thursday’s NBA trade deadline was a movie, the audience would have walked out in the middle from boredom. This freeze came straight from the script that is the league’s new collective bargaining agreement — with its harsher luxury tax penalties and diminished roster flexibility for tax offenders — it put the clamps on a stunningly uneventful deadline day.
The big names were on the opening credits: Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
Yet, when the curtain closed at 3 p.m. ET, Orlando Magic sharpshooter J.J. Redick stole the show as the lone player of significance to switch teams. The Milwaukee Bucks acquired the career 39.8 percent 3-point shooter in a six-player deal that involved five other relatively anonymous NBA names.
Only one potential blockbuster deal percolated, but ultimately died on the vine with the Atlanta Hawks going the distance in an attempt to strike a deal with the Bucks for Smith before pulling back. One reason so few big deals were discussed was simply because there wasn’t much talent realistically in play, a point that goes beyond any ramifications of the CBA.
The CBA that took effect in December 2011, and begins to smack tax-paying teams with stiffer fines next season, has clearly put franchises on the defensive. Teams that were once willing to add salary to consummate a deal no longer are. Teams that once didn’t think twice about sweetening a deal with a first-round pick, suddenly guard them with their lives.
“Cap room and draft picks, which are usually the currency of how these [big] deals get done, were at a huge premium and are something that everyone wants to have,” said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who steered the most active club at the deadline with a couple of lower-tier deals.
There’s really no greater example of the effect of these changes than the Dallas Mavericks and their braintrust, owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. Chronic and strategic over-spenders and tax payers under the old CBA, Cuban, who took on salary in deadline deals for Jason Kidd in 2008 and Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson in 2010, analyzed the new rules and reversed field last year.
He dismantled the 2011 championship team, choosing to covet cap space and the roster flexibility granted to teams that remain under the tax threshold, as well as newfound valuing of first-round draft picks as low-priced labor and trade assets.
It’s a strategy that no longer has the Mavs on speed dial of teams looking to make a deal and dump salary.
“It’s definitely a factor,” Nelson said of the CBA’s chilling effect Thursday after the deadline expired. “There’s no question that folks have their eye on the inevitable, and there’s no question that people are getting their collective houses in order.
“There’s some teams that see that on the horizon and act early, and other teams that will procrastinate and pay a dear price. But I think we’re right in the middle of that. It’s not brand-new news and so, yeah, I think you’re going to see a lot of teams try to correct themselves financially.”
The so-called “repeater” tax really has teams scared. Several clubs tried to deal away lost-cost players to avoid the repeater tax, which will whack franchises with an additional fine if they go over the tax line in three of four seasons. Golden State was successful in this venture. Chicago was not and will pay a luxury tax for the first time since its implementation.
This “repeater” penalty deterred teams from making deals that would have pushed payroll even slightly over the tax line, deals they might have normally green-lighted in the old days. So, is this the way of the future under the current rules?
“I can’t predict the future,” Morey said, “but I think the trend is more this way.”
Rockets: Morey’s stockpiling of assets the last couple years has been questioned, but he’s turned it into quite a haul starting with James Harden prior to the start of the season. The day before the deadline, Morey acquired the No. 5 overall pick, Thomas Robinson, from Sacramento. Morey’s dealing didn’t damage an abundance of cap space next summer that will be used to pursue a top free agent such as Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
Bucks: GM John Hammond didn’t get his big fish in Smith, but he pulled off the deal for Redick, who should really help a club that’s been skidding down the East standings and needs a boost. Hammond held onto Jennings and Ellis and will have room to maneuver in the summer to add more pieces.
Thunder: GM Sam Presti continues to make shrewd moves. The acquisition of Ronnie Brewer from the New York Knicks for a second-round pick gives OKC another strong perimeter defender to help Thabo Sefolosha.
Celtics:Jordan Crawford might not be Jamal Crawford, but he can score in bunches and Boston was desperate to bolster its injury-ravaged guard backcourt. Boston fans are the winners here, too, with the team’s heart and soul, Garnett and Pierce, staying put.
Mavericks: Sure, on the surface, picking up 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow for defensive-minded guard Dahntay Jones doesn’t sound like much. But then SheridanHoops.com reminded us of this Dwight Howard interview in Russia when he named Morrow as one of a handful of players he’d like to have as a teammate.
Blazers: The team with the leanest bench in the NBA finally got some help in a minor deal that netted OKC guard Eric Maynor, who lost his job early on to Reggie Jackson. Maynor will help Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard reduce his 38.5 mpg workload.
Hawks: They didn’t get the deal done to ship out Smith and now it seems they will lose him for nothing in free agency. On one level, however, it’s hard to say that this is a definitive loss. They’ll keep Smith (who might or might not come away from this experience deflated) for the rest of the season, and, with any luck, try to keep him while recruiting friend and fellow Atlantan Howard next summer. If GM Danny Ferry wasn’t pleased with the deals presented, it doesn’t always pay to take something, anything just because in the end you could be left with nothing. If Smith leaves, the Hawks will take the cap space and look to spin it in their favor.
Magic: They deal away a useful player and one they drafted in Redick and hand over his Bird Rights to the Bucks. There was no guarantee that Redick would re-sign with Orlando, but he at least had said the door was open to a return. The Magic’s Josh McRoberts to Charlotte deal for Hakim Warrick is a head-scratcher.
Knicks: They didn’t upgrade at any position and gave away a solid defender in Brewer, who was starting for the club during their hot start out of the gates, but had slipped out of the rotation. New York did use the roster vacancy to sign veteran power forward Kenyon Martin.
Nets: They failed to land another high-priced player in Smith and failed to unload one of their own, Kris Humphries.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat is in the second to last year of his contract, but that hasn’t stopped the big man from making his way into the trade deadline crosshairs this season.
Gortat’s name has surfaced in a report from Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic regarding the Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder. The rumored deal would have the Suns sending Gortat and P.J. Tucker to the Thunder for Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb and a first round draft pick.
Coro came back later and clarified his earlier report, via Twitter:
I mentioned All-Star break talk of a Perkins/Lamb/pick-Gortat/Tucker swap. Apparently, that was a league rumor but not actual team talks.— Paul Coro (@paulcoro) February 20, 2013
But Gortat’s name keeps coming up for a reason. Plenty of teams would be interested in a productive big man, with a reasonable contract (one more year at $7.72 million), who can play in any system and play any style.
Toss in the $6.4 million in salary cap room the Suns can work with, and there’s a reason they’ve been mentioned as potential trade deadline players, even as perhaps the third team in a three-team deal.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As Memphis, $37 million lighter after Wednesday’s dumping of Rudy Gay, visits Oklahoma City tonight, crystallized further is the small-market Thunder standing as the league’s one-and-only Super Team built to survive this new era under a sharp-toothed collective bargaining agreement.
The Super Team era is dead and the staggering luxury tax penalties that take effect next season scared Memphis straight into a salary sell-off. The Grizzlies moved lesser pieces in a deal last week that spared them from the last of the dollar-for-dollar tax penalty this season and could have allowed them to take one more postseason stab with its core four — Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
But the Grizzlies’ new ownership and management groups decided not even to do that. Gay is now a Raptor. Who knows where Randolph and Gasol will be come July?
Soon even LeBron James and the Super Friends might have to short-circuit LeBron’s “not one, not two, not three…” proclamation because the owners’ demands in the CBA is squeezing the three superstar model onto life support. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be owed a combined $62 million in the 2014-15 season before which all three can opt out. That three-player total already tops this season’s salary cap and is just $8 million from entering the luxury tax.
Starting next season, the luxury tax penalty increases incrementally with each $5 million over the threshold.
The Lakers? The Nets? The Knicks? The Spurs? The Bulls? Name another team with a core as young, as talented and as manageably locked up as the Thunder with All-Stars Kevin Durant andRussell Westbrook and ever-emerging big man Serge Ibaka. Surely not the Grizzlies. Perhaps the Los Angeles Clippers if they re-sign Chris Paul this summer to pair long term with Blake Griffin.
“We like our team,” Durant told NBA.com recently. “[General manager] Sam Presti, [assistant general manager] Troy [Weaver], do a great job of putting everything together and making it work, bringing great guys in here that fit with each other, making money fit, the salary cap, all that stuff. They make that work and we really trust them in every decision they make because they always try to put our team in position to do well.”
Presti and Co. made their difficult-but-necessary CBA-related move just days before the start of the season, further confirmation that the three superstar era is as good as dead when they gave up on signing James Harden and traded him to Houston. The deal netted sharpshooter Kevin Martin, and any criticism of the CBA pistol-whipping OKC into a chemistry-disrupting deal on the heels of an NBA Finals appearance evaporated with its seamless transition and fast start.
“We got rid of James, that had to happen, but we didn’t get rid of KD,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re going to be good for a long time. KD is still here and Russell, and we have some young guys that are improving. Serge is only 23. Jeremy Lamb (Houston’s No. 12 overall pick acquired in the Harden deal), he hasn’t played much, but he has a chance to be really good, he’s only 20. [Hasheem] Thabeet, he’s not a known guy, then we’ve got some first-round picks.
“So we’re excited about where we’re going, but still we want to win a championship now. We’re not playing for next season or the next season after. We’re like every team, if you have a chance to win you want to win now.”
The Thunder are the favorite to return to the NBA Finals and a combination of shrewd decisions and foresight by the front office, good timing and great luck have positioned them to rule the West, if not the league, for seasons to come. No other team has such desirable young talent locked up for the long haul and locked into contracts that make it at least possible to swim around the luxury tax line of doom without being financially severed by the sharks.
Durant and Westbrook are 24, and Ibaka, incredibly, is only 23. Durant is already signed to a max deal through 2015-16 and Westbrook is too, and through 2016-17. Ibaka signed an extension in the offeseason and is on board through 2016-17 on a reasonable deal that will begin to pay him $12.3 million next season.
Martin becomes a free agent after this season. With just one playoff series in his first eight seasons with Sacramento and Houston, Martin, who is making more than $12 million this season, says he wants to re-sign with OKC.
And if OKC needs an escape hatch, Presti still holds the amnesty card, which he can use, if he so chooses, next offseason on a player such as center Kendrick Perkins, who will earn $18.6 million over the next two seasons.
“Our management does a great job of putting the right people around the organization,” Westbrook said. “It’s showing and it should help us out for years to come.”
The new CBA is ending the Super Team era and it threatens any young building team with uncomfortable decisions and short-term cohesion.
At the moment, no team is better positioned to conquer it than the Thunder.
OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s funny how much a simple phone call can help.
“Right when the trade happened, when you’ve got players like Kevin Durant and [Kendrick] Perkins give you a call and welcome you; they didn’t wait for the next day, did it right then and I think that takes a lot of the stress off the whole process,” Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kevin Martin said. “If those guys are going to welcome you in, then anybody on the team is. I’ve been respecting those guys for years. They welcomed me in with open arms. They know what kind of player I am. I’ve played against them in the past, so they knew what they were getting.”
One helluva shooter.
Six weeks removed from the stunning trade that sent James Harden, a uniquely skilled penetrator and facilitator and a revered piece of the Thunder’s youthful core, to the Houston Rockets for the catch-and-shoot Martin, concerns of chemistry and crunch-time execution have been quelled by a red-hot club that just might be more lethal than the one that won the West. On Friday night, OKC welcomes the confounding Los Angeles Lakers, the preseason pick as greatest threat to dethrone the Thunder. L.A. drags a 9-10 record into the game amid an astonishing array of complications.
Oklahoma City, by contrast, remains a virtual picture of contentment. At 15-4 and winners of six in a row, the Thunder are the hottest thing in high-tops, scoring at a mesmerizing 105.7 points a game, sharing the ball like never before and shooting the lights out from beyond the arc, led by Martin’s quick-release, 47.7 percent.
“We made a big trade before the season and we’re going to stick with this for a while until people get over it,” Durant said. “But we know we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve got a group of guys that are willing to come and work hard every single day and guys are sacrificing. We’re also having fun on the court.”
The Thunder lead the NBA in shooting, hitting just under 50 percent.
None more so than Martin, a low-key, nine-year veteran of mostly lottery teams in Sacramento and Houston who has been in one playoff series, seven seasons ago.
Still, the trade didn’t come without some apprehension on Martin’s part.
What if the Thunder players harbored hard feelings? What if they resented Martin, or resented management for breaking up the city’s beloved Big Three after their arm-locked vow in Miami to come back and beat the Heat in the 2013 Finals?
Durant’s calming voice at the other end of the phone eased all that before Martin ever stepped on Oklahoma soil.
“I’m past it,” Durant said a week ago when Harden and the Rockets visited Oklahoma City for the first time. “Just seeing James and Daequan [Cook] of course brought back memories of these last few years, but we move past it.”
Harden said in his return that he didn’t like how hastily the trade went down as the two sides negotiated against the league’s approaching deadline. Maybe Harden never really wanted to leave. Maybe his financial demands forced the team’s hand. Maybe management only had in mind the harsher luxury tax penalties coming, including the “repeater” tax in the new collective bargaining agreement, and were intent on making a deal.
In the end, Harden will make $80 million over the next five seasons to be the Rockets’ star, some $25 million more than the Thunder’s top offer to defend his Sixth Man of the Year crown.
Doesn’t matter now
“I really enjoy having K-Mart and Jeremy [Lamb] here,” Durant said. “I’m never going to be upset that [Harden's] playing well or that he left. Of course, it was a little different, it was difficult to deal with at first, but he’s in Houston. He’s over there playing well, he’s got his own team, he’s leading those guys in the right direction. You’re happy for one of your brothers that you’ve grown up with in this league, so no hard feelings.”
Martin, who will turn 30 in February, certainly has none. For him, the trade offered opportunity. A starter in virtually every game he’s played over the last six seasons, Martin has embraced the reserve role, of accepting less than 30 minutes a game for the first time since his second season, to be a cog in the machine instead of the all-or-nothing engine for teams on an uphill climb.
“There’s a lot of stress that goes with that — having to score to give your team a chance to win,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, an assistant with Martin’s Kings in 2006-07. “Well, he doesn’t have to do that here. We want him to score, he has to be able to play with his skills at a high level, but he could have 10 points and we can win the game. I’m not so sure that was the case in years past.”
The Thunder’s last two wins serve as prime examples. Martin scored 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting against the Hornets. Two nights later at Brooklyn, he had seven points on 2-for-4 shooting. OKC won both games.
To transition from Harden’s ability to initiate the offense with the second unit, Brooks has altered his rotations to allow for either Durant or Russell Westbrook, if not both, to be on the floor with Martin.
“We know defenses are just going to have to pick their poison with big-time scorers like Durant and Russ and myself, and every night is going to be different,” Martin said. “I guess that’s the beauty of it, I don’t have to go out and kill my body and get 30 every night to try and be in a game. Now it’s just easy pickings.”
Offense on fire
Martin is smiling all the way to averaging a modest 15.6 points a game, well below what he’s accustomed to, on 46.3 percent shooting.
OKC easily tops the league in scoring, bettering by more than two points last season’s per-game average of 103.1. Its point-differential is an off-the-charts, plus-9.6, more than three points higher than last season. Martin’s ability to spread the floor and bury 3-pointers is a definite boost, but the Thunder’s offense is experiencing surges in other areas, too.
Serge Ibaka‘s evolution has him averaging 14.5 points on nearly 60 percent shooting. It’s the first time in his four seasons he’s averaging in double digits, giving the Thunder a legitimate post scoring threat. In August, Thunder general manager Sam Presti essentially bet on the emerging Ibaka, already an elite shot blocker, by giving him a $48 million extension that ultimately priced out Harden.
Westbrook ranks among the league’s assist leaders at 8.7, up more than three a game from last season, to complement his 20.9 points a game. The ball is moving more and the Thunder’s significant jump in assists, from 30th last season to seventh, is direct proof.
And, of course, there’s the amazingly mature Durant. The three-time scoring champ is averaging 26.5 points a game while shooting career-high percentages from the floor, behind the 3-point arc and at the free-throw line. His 4.4 assists are a career-best, up nearly one a game, and his 8.5 rebounds a game also represents a carer high mark.
Worries that the Thunder would buckle after the trade, that the offense would flatten, that the mighty, All-Star-laden Lakers would overrun them, have taken a back seat.
“I think that shows the growth of Russell and KD,” Martin said. “Going to the Finals, going to the Olympics last year, now more is in their hands of dishing out to players because they get a lot of attention. I’m a traditional shooting guard, I come off screens and I let my point guard run the show. I’m not like Harden, I’m 6-7 and he’s 6-4, and he’s more of a shooting point guard and I’m more of a shooting shooting guard, so that’s the difference between us.
“But I think we’re in the situation we’re in right now because of Kevin and Russ, just their ability to grow in the last year, the last six months.”
So now, with Martin settled in and the team playing well, there’s a more relevant question about the Thunder: Just how good can this version be?
The Beard and James Harden were supposed to keep growing in Oklahoma City.
Now he’s back, looking to trim the Thunder.
It was barely five months ago when Harden locked arms with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the clock ticked down the last minute of their loss to Miami in The Finals.
That was supposed to be a sign of togetherness, a commitment to return this season to finish the job and embark on a new world order in the NBA.
For three years, they were the core of a team that was said to be different, more of a family bonding together amid a small-town atmosphere.
But even the best families often come apart and the question that remains is just how much was torn from the fabric in OKC when Harden was shockingly traded to Houston five days before the start of the 2012-13 season?
The Thunder are where everyone expected them to be, atop the Northwest Division with one of the best records in the league.
Yet nothing that matters won’t really happen until next June when the Thunder will have a yawning hole in the resume if they are not again playing for a championship.
Harden, of course, is in a totally different place in more ways than geography. The former hit man off the bench in OKC is now the Rockets’ top gun, having grabbed the headlines with explosions of 37 and 45 points in his first two games and is currently the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer (25.1 ppg) as he hangs in the marquee neighborhood with Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Durant and LeBron James.
It will be a homecoming of a different sort tonight (8 ET, NBA TV) when he takes the court for the first time ever in Loud City as an other and not one of those wrapped in the smothering arms of that deafening embrace. Some of his fans may welcome him when his name is introduced, but when he drills a long jumper and runs down the floor holding out three fingers on each hand or slips through the interior defense for a layup, Harden will be the enemy.
It will be a long and emotional day for Harden before he even takes the court. The Rockets flew immediately after Tuesday night’s win at home over Toronto to Minneapolis, where they’ll attend the funeral service of head coach Kevin McHale’s 23-year-old daughter Sasha. Then they’ll get back on their charter plane and fly to Oklahoma City with a scheduled arrival of 3:30 p.m.
Harden said he hasn’t given any thought to how he’ll feel at the 7 p.m tipoff.
“To be honest, I don’t even know,” he said. “It’s gonna be a long day. It will be good to see some faces, old teammates and coaches and my family.
“I’m on the road. I’m on the road trying to get a win. That’s no different than playing at Memphis or at Atlanta, whatever the case may be.
“It’s another game.”
The truth is it is just another one of 82 in the long regular season schedule, one night at the tail end of November that will have little to do with who raises the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the cusp of next summer.
“Won’t be nothing for me,” his old buddy Westbrook said. “Nothing happened to me.”
Except that it did, this deal that sent the league reeling in disbelief. While everyone seems to understand the financial reasons that OKC general manager Sam Presti pulled the trigger, putting the franchise on the road to a firmer long term future, it will be little consolation if Harden’s replacement Kevin Martin doesn’t help shoot the Thunder at least back to another Western Conference title and another crack at the top of the mountain.
That’s all Harden, Durant and Westbrook could think about as they stood on the sidelines that night in Miami, arm-in-arm in defeat, side-by-side secure in the belief that they would keep moving ahead together.
Did he consider for a moment that he would only return to OKC this season for just one game as an outsider?
“To be honest, I didn’t,” Harden said. “Especially coming off The Finals and basically being together (with Durant and Westbrook) all summer with the Olympics. It happened so fast, happened so fast … Everything happens for a reason and now I’m in a different situation.”