With Paul George gone, Sam Presti knew he had to rebuild Thunder
The NBA landscape has spun out of control in the past week, with first Kawhi Leonard pulling his muted power move by orchestrating a Paul George trade to the Los Angeles Clippers and then the Rockets followed six days later by acquiring Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Chris Paul.
The NBA has never been more exciting, dramatic, or unpredictable. There were plenty of NBA pundits who said Paul’s contract — $124 million owed over the next three years – would never be moved. Westbrook signed an extension with the Thunder to be there for the rest of his career. Neither of those were true.
The George trade set up the Westbrook trade. When George demanded to be moved, it put general manager Sam Presti in the unenviable position of having to essentially gut his team. The Thunder without George weren’t going to compete in the Western Conference, so he decided to clean house.
He moved valuable forward Jerami Grant to the Denver Nuggets for a first-round pick, and he acquired two more first-rounders in the Paul deal — all in addition to the five he received from the Clippers (and two rights to swap).
In all, Oklahoma City received nine first-round picks over the next seven drafts, not to mention its own draft picks.
The theme is teams are going to either compete for titles or rebuild. There is no middle ground. No team wants to be fighting to win 40 games and miss out on a premium draft pick. That’s why Presti accumulated so many picks, to not only use them to replenish his roster but to also move those picks to teams that want to move their established veterans.
It’s a vicious cycle that affects nearly every team. The Celtics moved Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to the Nets in 2013 for a load of draft picks, and that jump-started their rejuvenation.
The moment George was traded to the Clippers, Presti was likely flooded with calls for the remaining marketable players on his roster. It’s like the vultures see the carcass and begin descending on the prey — and most every team has had to be that carcass.
And it is rooted back to Leonard’s desire to play with George. If he doesn’t make that request , George probably stays in OKC, at least for the short term. But that started a domino effect that puts the 34-year-old Paul in Oklahoma City, at least for the short term.
Paul does not have a future with the Thunder and Presti will try to move him.
The Miami Heat, searching for relevance since the departure of LeBron James, are interested but they would have to involve the salaries of players such as Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, or Justise Winslow, and the Heat have to question whether the duo of Paul and Jimmy Butler make them a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Players have taken more control of the NBA with their desire to play in their preferred cities but this is nothing new. If Kyrie Irving doesn’t demand a trade from Cleveland, Isaiah Thomas is still likely a Celtic. Anthony Davis’s trade demand to the Lakers ensured that Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart would head to New Orleans.
The key for teams is to realize when it’s best to begin the rebuild, and then make the process as painless as possible. The Hornets could have just moved on without Kemba Walker and then allowed several of their unwanted contracts to expire. Instead, they decided to make something of losing Walker and acquired Terry Rozier and paid him more than $19 million per season for a player who has never been a full-time starter.
There are those at the Las Vegas Summer League who believe Michael Jordan’s priority in Charlotte is not winning, but simply profiting and avoiding the luxury tax. They believe it would have been better for the Hornets to completely tank, get a premium draft pick, and then slowly improve.
Instead, Rozier could help make the Hornets a 30-win team, meaning they’d have to luck into a high pick. So it may be the merry-go-round of mediocrity again in Charlotte.
Meanwhile, Presti realized when it’s time to fold them (shout out to Kenny Rogers) and that’s sometimes when general managers do their best work.
Horford excited about Sixers
Al Horford is officially a 76er and he explained for the first time his motives when he opted out of his Celtics contract and signed a four-year, $109 million deal with the Eastern Conference rivals.
Horford said he had no idea how much 76ers general manager Elton Brand wanted him to join Philadelphia’s frontcourt, along with center Joel Embiid. One of the main reasons Horford wanted out of Boston was the heavy minutes he was expected to play at center.
“I have a lot of respect for Elton,” Horford said. “I got to watch him as [I was] a younger player be on our team [in Atlanta] and see how professional he was, how he took care of his body. I really respected him just seeing how he did it when he was with us. And when they came knocking and approached me, it felt right. And that’s why I’m excited to be here, because I know that he wants what’s best for this city, for Philadelphia, and what we’re trying to do.”
Horford didn’t get much of the blame for what happened last season in Boston and he told reporters after the Milwaukee series that he wanted to come back. But Philadelphia offered a more intriguing opportunity, a team that was one basket away from the conference finals with a more proven roster than the Celtics.
“Yeah, that was a priority for me. I think the opportunity to play for this type of organization, for this city, was something that I really had to consider and look at,” Horford said. “And then when you add the potential of this group and what I’ve seen — Coach [Brett] Brown leading the way, and obviously Joel, Ben [Simmons], Tobias [Harris] and all the upside that we have. And now we’ve just finished assembling our group. And every time I kept looking at and seeing the players that we were signing, I kept getting more excited.”
“We’ve got a good group here and that really got me excited — got me even more excited. I felt like we were in a good place and I feel really good about our future.”
Horford has long been known as an Embiid stopper, a player with enough athleticism to frustrate the big man and enough girth to provide resistance. Now, they’re teammates.
“Well, I think I’ve said this in the past; I’ve always been a fan of Joel,” Horford said. “Just everything he brings on the court, off the court. There were some great battles and when this opportunity came along — the possibility of teaming up with him got me really excited about the potential. How good we can be — help our team be [good] defensively. Just get to working together and do some special things. So I’m very grateful to be in this position.
“I think that when you always looked at the 76ers teams, the thing that I always respected was defense. And I feel like the way that they play really represents Philly, and that’s what we want to do here. As a group, we’re hanging our hat on the defensive end, getting out in transition, sharing the ball and trying to win that championship. That’s our mind-set.”
Are the players now in charge?
During his news conference to announce his four-year, $196 million contract extension, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said the players are beginning to take control of the league — and that was before Kawhi Leonard mandated the Clippers acquire Paul George as a condition of signing there.
Also, it shouldn’t be lost that four of the league’s top 15 players — Leonard, George, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant — are playing for two teams. And one could expand that number to six players and three teams if you include LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The NBA has a power team in Brooklyn and two in Los Angeles. How does that bode for cities such as San Antonio, Charlotte, or even Utah, which have no chance of landing superstars unless they are developed.
“In terms of balance of power, you know, again, I don’t necessarily see it as player versus owner,” commissioner Adam Silver said after the league’s Board of Governors met in Las Vegas. “And I think, again, when we step back, what’s best for the fan? I think what’s best for the fan is a 30-team league which everyone has the opportunity to compete with a fair set of rules. I think to the extent that the balance of power is out of whack a little bit, we should address it.”
It’s not a major point of concern yet, especially since the Raptors just won their first NBA title, Utah lined its roster with talent to be a contender in the Western Conference, and the Pelicans are ramping up with a group of premium young players.
“But also I think that the teams agreed we shouldn’t be making decisions off a narrow set of circumstances,” Silver said. “I mean, we have to look over the course of the agreement. These agreements are multi-year. We still have four years left in this Collective Bargaining Agreement. We’re constantly talking to the Players Association. But, as I said, even this notion of player power, what we’re really talking about is a small group of players.
“As I said, players want to know that they’re in a fair system as well, where they have the opportunity to compete under — like with all competition, for any of us who have competed, you want to know that the rules are known and that they’re being enforced. And again, I think we have some work to do there when it comes to free agency.”
Teams have been circumventing the moratorium, signing players just moments after the negotiating period begins. Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks revealed during his news conference to discuss the Durant signing that the 10-time All-Star agreed to a deal before he was even contacted.
If a player wants to join a team that badly, there’s not much a commissioner can do about that.
“There’s always been sort of stuff around the edges that’s gone on. It may have moved to a new level due to a lot of circumstances, part of it due to the fantastic coverage you all provide,” Silver said. “It’s sort of the minute-by-minute coverage we all get. It puts pressure on teams. It puts pressure on players. It puts pressure on all of you to break stories.”
And so for me, it’s not so much as opposed to now the power has shifted, it’s here we are, 2019, this is the world we now live in, it’s a very different world than it used to be, and how should we adjust accordingly.”
SUMMER LEAGUE BLUES
Without big names, luster lost
While Celtics center Tacko Fall became the darling of the Las Vegas Summer League, other more notable players, such as Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish either did not play or played one game because of injury.
Silver said the league has been a success, especially internationally with teams from China and Croatia in the tournament. But teams sitting out their top draft picks in this “load management” era could be a cause of concern in the future.
“I’m not concerned. I mean, these are unique circumstances,” Silver said. “Of course, Zion and RJ Barrett were out there, at least for the first half of the game. It was the highest rating we’d ever experienced in the Summer League. I understand why Zion was shut down, in essence. I spoke directly to [Pelicans president] David Griffin about it.
“Again, I think that to the extent that [Williamson] needs to focus on his conditioning and his health, the last thing we want is to put him at risk for a Summer League tournament or program. I recognize the Summer League is there for teams to use as appropriate. Frankly, at the end of the day, the real intention of the Summer League was for those non-drafted players to get exposure.
“So, while it’s fun to have them out on the floor and it’s fun to have some of the veterans here as well, sitting in the stands and bonding with their new teammates, at the end of the day, remember we only have a two-round draft, so this is critically important exposure for a lot of US players and international players, as well.
“And I think that the attendance, the ratings reflect the fact that there’s a fan base out there that’s eager to see some of these new faces.”
The Celtics’ waiving of Guerschon Yabusele was no surprise in the organization, even to Yabusele. He pressed all of Summer League because his job was on the line. But, in reality, his fate had pretty much been determined. Yabusele has no true position, too small to play center and not a good enough shooter to play a stretch-4. The only chance Yabusele, 23, has to be picked up on waivers is for a team who wants to perhaps use his $3.1 million expiring contract in a trade. Otherwise, it may be time for Yabusele to go overseas, refine his game, and return in a few years. It ends a regrettable 2016 draft for the Celtics, who also chose Ante Zizic with their second first-round pick. Zizic was a throw-in to the Kyrie Irving trade and never played a game with the Celtics. Meanwhile, the Raptors selected Most Improved Player of the Year Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick . . . Marcus Morris and his brother Markieff signed with agent Rich Paul with the express purpose of signing lucrative contracts after feeling they were underpaid on their previous deals. Markieff signed a two-year $7.4 million deal with the Pistons and Marcus agreed to a two-year, $20 million deal with the Spurs. But that was before the Knicks cleared salary-cap space and offered Marcus a one-year, $15 million deal. Marcus wanted the Knicks contract and took it, reneging on the Spurs because, according to an NBA source, he felt he was not informed properly of the Spurs deal. Marcus wants to take the $15 million and then become a free agent next season again at age 31. Markieff accepted a lesser contract because there are still concerns about the neck injury he sustained with the Wizards. The Pistons still have not officially announced Markieff’s deal and there’s speculation the Morris twins still want to play together, perhaps in New York. They wanted their free agency to be smoother than this process, but had to wait as teams chased the major free agents. They wanted to play together in Los Angeles, but Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was not interested in such a reunion.