What Kings can learn from end of Thunder after Russell Westbrook trade


What Kings can learn from end of Thunder after Russell Westbrook trade

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets provided plenty of fodder for the hashtag-this-league crowd Thursday, reportedly trading point guards Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul for one another. 

Westbrook's inclusion in the reported deal marked an end of an era in Oklahoma City, with the last piece of a potential dynasty joining former Thunder stars James Harden (Houston), Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets) and Serge Ibaka (Toronto Raptors) in playing outside of OKC next season. After a five-game NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat seven years ago, those four looked poised to form the nucleus of a team that could rule over the NBA for a decade. 

A little over four months after that loss, Oklahoma City traded Harden to the Rockets. In 2016, Durant joined the Warriors as a free agent days after Serge Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic. Now, the era officially is over, and its end offers a cautionary tale for the Kings.

The lesson? Keep your talent, even if it comes at a financial cost. 

Sacramento has its own stable of young talent that it hopes can develop into an Oklahoma City-esque core. Point guard De'Aaron Fox, 21, took a great leap forward in his second NBA season. Big man Marvin Bagley III, 20, is coming off a first-team All-Rookie year. Power forward Harry Giles, 20, showed flashes off the bench as a rookie in 2018-19.

Sharpshooter Buddy Hield, 26, is older than any of the Thunder's big four when Harden was traded, as is 26-year-old sixth man Bogdan Bogdanovic. But both players are a year away from restricted free agency, which is the same position Harden was in before he was traded. 

At the time of the deal, Harden was coming off of his third NBA season. He had just won the Sixth Man of the Year award, averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists off the bench for the Thunder. Harden wasn't the sixth-most important player on Oklahoma City that season, however, playing the third-most minutes per game (31.4) and scoring the third-most points behind Durant and Westbrook. 

Eligible for an extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, Harden sought out a maximum contract. He was days away from the deadline to re-sign and the Thunder, fearing the looming luxury tax, reportedly wanted to pay Harden like a Sixth Man. 

Harden grew into a superstar, while the Thunder moved forward with a Durant-Ibaka-Westbrook core and made two more Western Conference finals. But they never again reached The Finals as luxury-tax bills grew more and more around the NBA. The Thunder dealt Ibaka days before Durant departed, hoping to clear enough salary-cap space to retain Durant and re-sign Westbrook to an extension. Westbrook got that extension, but now will finish it elsewhere.

Oklahoma City ultimately appeared to learn its own lesson, forking up one of the highest luxury-tax bills in NBA history last season with Paul George playing alongside Westbrook. But by then, it was too late, with only a first-round exit under their belt and both George and Westbrook now gone in the span of a week. 

The comparison is not perfect. The Kings have not had the same success as those Thunder teams, with Sacramento still searching for its first playoff appearance since 2006. Moreover, Fox and Bagley are the only players to even approach the heights of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka. 

But these Kings quickly could become expensive, too. Hield and Bogdanovic will need new contracts next summer, and the Kings would sit just over $44 million below the luxury-tax line as things stand right now, according to Spotrac. It's difficult to envision each their two contracts combining for that total, but that space surely would diminish if the Kings made a trade similar to, say, the one that brought in Harrison Barnes last spring. The following summer is when Fox would be eligible for an extension, which -- assuming he continues along his trajectory -- could be pricey. 

None of the free-agent deals the Kings signed this summer are fully guaranteed beyond 2021 in order to provide maximum flexibility, but the salary cap and the luxury tax are not set past then, either. As long as those aren't, that means Sacramento has to be prepared to face a similar crossroads to what Oklahoma City did seven years ago. 

[RELATED: Ariza is excited to reunite with Walton in Sacramento]

It will be a good problem for general manager Vlade Divac to have if these Kings can reach the level of that Thunder team. That means Sacramento would be on the precipice of long-term contention, which has been the goal since DeMarcus Cousins was dealt to the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. 

Getting there might not require the Kings paying a cent of the luxury tax. But if it does, they'll only need to look at the end of Westbrook's tenure to Oklahoma City whether or not the alternative outweighs the financial cost. 

How Kent Bazemore proving to be Kings' missing ingredient during surge

How Kent Bazemore proving to be Kings' missing ingredient during surge

LOS ANGELES -- Every once in a while, a player comes along who seamlessly fits in and instantly improves a team. Veteran guard Kent Bazemore has been that player for the Kings.

Bazemore and experienced big man Anthony Tolliver officially joined Sacramento in a Jan. 21 trade from the Portland Trail Blazers, and Bazemore, 30, has been a catalyst for the Kings' recent surge. They are 8-5 since his arrival, clawing their way back into the playoff picture.

In the Kings' 112-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday afternoon, Bazemore scored 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He added six rebounds, four steals and played strong defense from the moment he stepped on the floor.

Bazemore also shoved coach Luke Walton after the Kings' win. Not only has he been a viable option off the bench, but his personality is helping to push the Kings’ culture in the right direction.

“You’ve got to relish these moments, you’ve got to bottle it up and really understand what it feels like and take it over to the next day,” Bazemore said Saturday. “It’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to be a good team in this league and when you go on the road in big games like this, you’ve got to feel it.”

Walton has been a target in Sacramento after the Kings got off to a slow start. Like any coach, he wants to win and be part of the first Kings team to make the postseason since 2007.

Victories like the one over the Clippers shows that the team is still fighting for their coach despite the rocky start to the season.

“We here, we here -- we’re behind him 110 percent,” Bazemore said of Walton. “He’s just as fiery as any coach I’ve ever played with. Sometimes it looks like he wants to get out there, but he’s kinda chubby now, so those days are over.”

Walton feels the same way about Bazemore. The coach knows exactly how much Bazemore's addition has helped stabilize his club, both on and off the court.

“He’s been great -- the things he says in the locker room, his participation in film sessions, the energy and passion he plays the game with, his versatility,” Walton said when asked about Bazemore’s contributions.

What the Kings are seeing from Bazemore is what they were hoping to get when they signed Trevor Ariza during the offseason. While Ariza brought value to Sacramento, he didn’t have the same type of impact and he’s not nearly as versatile.

On any given night, Bazemore is asked to come off the bench and defend the best the opposition has to offer. Against the Clippers, he guarded Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams. Bazemore held his own against both, which was a big reason the Kings came away with a victory.

“He’s been huge, the way he’s been playing,” De'Aaron Fox said. “He’s been scoring the ball for us as well in situations, but defensively, he’s out there guarding Kawhi, he’s guarding Lou, he’s doing a lot of things.”

There was something missing from this team, and Bazemore might have been the missing ingredient. His intensity and professionalism are contagious. He also has a light-hearted side that his teammates seem to enjoy.

“It wasn’t much that needed to be changed,” Bazemore said. “But sometimes fresh blood does help and I hadn’t been having the best year, so I think it was a match made in heaven.”

With 26 games remaining, the Kings are getting to test drive Bazemore as a player and he is doing the same. A free agent at the end of the season, NBC Sports California has confirmed that the Kings have already had internal discussions about re-signing him, although there is plenty of time between now and July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

[RELATED: Kings' Harry Giles earns first double-double in road win vs. Clippers]

For now, the focus is on winning. The Kings entered Sunday five games out of the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, and they are playing very well coming out of the All-Star break. 

“We’ve got 20 some odd games left and it’s a crapshoot right now,” Bazemore said. “Some teams are injured. It’s a sink or swim moment. You see it every year, some team gets hot and makes it interesting at the end. We have some lofty goals and we have the group to get it done.”

If Bazemore continues to play well and the Kings get a player or two back from injury, there is a chance they can make this season interesting down the stretch. It starts with wins like Sacramento's last two, and Bazemore was vital to both.

Kings' Harry Giles earns first double-double in road win vs. Clippers

Kings' Harry Giles earns first double-double in road win vs. Clippers

LOS ANGELES -- Don’t look now, but the Kings are on a roll.

With a 112-103 victory over the Clippers on Saturday, Sacramento now has won two in a row and eight of its last 12 games. There are plenty of reasons for the push, but flying under the radar is the improvement of second-year big man Harry Giles.

“There’s a lot of growth happening,” Kings coach Luke Walton told NBC Sports California after the win. “One, I think his conditioning and his body looks, and I’m assuming, feels pretty good right now.”

Giles went toe-to-toe with a huge Clippers frontline and managed to post his first career double-double. He finished the game with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting and chipped in 12 rebounds, which matched his career high.

“It feels good, man,” Giles said. “I feel like I already had one, I should have had one. I’m glad I can finally put one in the books.”

On Jan. 30, Giles struggled to stay on the floor against the Clippers, picking up two quick fouls against Montrezl Harrell and then sitting for all but three minutes of the game while the Kings’ 3-point shooters rained down on Los Angeles.

“You have to give him a lot of credit for continuing to improve and do what we as a staff are asking him to do,” Walton added.

With very little support behind him because of njury, Giles came into Saturday’s game knowing that he had to stay on the floor. The only hope of doing that was to play defense without fouling.

[RELATED: Marvin Bagley visits foot specialist, out at least three more weeks]

“With time and reps, I’m just going to get better,” Giles said. “The fouls -- it varies. It’s tough. It depends on how you play and how the refs let you play. I’m going to keep getting better at that and just keep playing hard.”

In a career-high 32 minutes of action, Giles picked up just three fouls. He set good screens, moved his feet on defense and limited his mistakes overall. More importantly, he played valuable fourth-quarter minutes in a huge team victory.

Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley continue to miss time because of injury, and the Kings are extremely thin upfront. Giles has started six of the last eight games, and he’s starting to build momentum.

“I’m just trying to build on the opportunity and keep winning,” Giles said.

With just over a minute left and the game still undecided, Giles got an opportunity to shine off the lob.

[RELATED: Jabari Parker ready for Kings debut, Alex Len getting closer]

The Kings decided not to pick up Giles’ fourth-year option back in October, but they’ve kept the door open for a possible return for the 21-year-old big next season. He has another 26 games to show what he can do, and he’s auditioning for all 30 teams at this point.

Giles wasn’t the only center to play minutes for the Kings. 7-footer Alex Len made his Sacramento debut and played very well for a player who has missed 11 straight games with a hip pointer.

“I wasn’t planning on playing him that much, I wanted to just get him out there a little bit,” Walton said. “I was going to come in with Jabari [Parker], but he looked good. He was moving well. He was clogging up the paint. He was putting out fires for us. So I pushed it a little more than I wanted to with his minutes, but he said he felt good, and it was nice to have a real big 7-foot body out there to help control the paint.”

Len, who came over from the Atlanta Hawks at the NBA trade deadline, finished with three points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes of play. He was active and made a nice impact on the game in his limited time on the court.