Three questions Blazers must answer this summer

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USA Today

Three questions Blazers must answer this summer

For the third straight year, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended in demoralizing fashion. Another sweep, with the Golden State Warriors once again holding the broom just as they did in 2017. The Blazers did manage to steal one game against the Warriors in 2016, but that playoff victory comes with an important footnote: Stephen Curry sat out with a knee injury. 

That’s been the story for the Blazers. After falling to 0-10 against the Warriors in the playoffs with Curry in uniform, it’s clear Portland hasn’t figured out this team. 

Well, guess what? No one else has either. 

Since Steve Kerr took over in 2015, the Warriors have won an astounding 17 of 18 playoff series. The one team that beat them -- the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers -- needed LeBron James, a Draymond Green suspension, and last-second heroics in Game 7 to pull off the upset in the NBA Finals.

Just when the Cavs thought they may have solved the riddle, the Warriors added Kevin Durant and dismantled the Cavs over the next two Finals. Following a 2017 sweep, James packed his bags for Hollywood. 

Should the Blazers try going in a different direction just like LeBron did? 

Let’s get into that and two other big questions the Blazers offseason.

1. Do the Blazers blow it up?

Under contract for two more seasons, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum won’t be partaking in the free-agent frenzy this summer. But even if they did have the ability to leave Portland, they’d have little reason to flee like Durant in 2016 or James in 2018. The Warriors have that effect on people.

It may not feel like it now, but this was the best realistic outcome for the Blazers. Vegas preseason projections saw a 42-win team, not enough to even make the playoffs. Multiple media outlets agreed with that grim outlook, envisioning a team that would take a huge step back after a 49-33 season in 2017-18. 

Led by Logo Lillard’s attack, the Blazers didn’t just make the playoffs, they improved to 52-30 and became one of the last two West teams standing. 

That they managed to fight this far should be the legacy of this team. The owner, Paul Allen, died two days before the season opener. McCollum missed nearly a month at the end of the season with a knee injury. Jusuf Nurkic, the starting center and a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player honors, broke his leg three weeks before the playoffs. 

The Blazers could have huddled up, put their hands together and chanted “1-2-3, Cancun!” and it would be an understandable reaction given their recent history of consecutive first-round sweeps. Instead, the Blazers changed the narrative of the franchise, marched to the Western Conference finals and took down three superstars in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Nikola Jokic along the way.

Nurkic’s injury was devastating for the Blazers’ hopes, but on one level, it may be a blessing in disguise for this group. Clearly overmatched against the Warriors, the absence of Nurkic gives them fuel for redemption next season. Maybe Nurkic doesn’t stop the Draymond Green show in this series, but the Warriors clearly didn’t think much of the Blazers’ depleted frontcourt, choosing to swarm the backcourt and dare everyone else to beat them.

If Nurkic is healthy, that plan may not have been as wise. The Bosnian center is Portland’s best passing big man, averaging 3.2 assists per game and providing a release valve in the event that Lillard and McCollum are blanketed up top. Though Meyers Leonard did the best he could in a pinch, the playoff stage at this juncture demands two-way players and Nurkic provides a much stiffer presence on the defensive end and on the boards, where the Warriors can be exploited. 

The expectation around the league is that the Blazers will run it back and give it another go. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic back for at least two more seasons, this core will likely have another crack at the Warriors in postseasons to come. As we saw in this series, Durant’s potential departure may not matter for the Blazers’ prospects, but Nurkic’s return should at least give them a fighting chance.

The future is brighter than it seemed a year ago. This is a small-market team with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic all under 30 years old entering next season, which can’t be said for the starry cores in Houston and OKC. Denver is on the rise, but the Blazers just beat them. Both L.A. teams have uncertain futures. Utah and Minnesota didn’t take the step forward that many envisioned.

Portland is in a great spot in a league marked by uncertainty. That doesn’t mean they don’t have offseason questions. Seth Curry, Enes Kanter, Rodney Hood and Al-Farouq Aminu will all be unrestricted free agents this summer. Of those names, the Blazers only have Bird Rights on Aminu, which means the Blazers, as an over-the-cap team, won’t be able to offer substantial raises to Curry, Hood and Kanter when they hit a seller’s market.

That doesn’t mean the supporting cast won’t return. If role players turn down more money from elsewhere, it’s because they appreciate Portland’s stable environment, escaping the very real stresses and expectations of a marquee franchise. With so much free-agent turnover around the league, the Blazers’ relative calm and order can be an appealing draw.

With that said, it would be a surprise if Curry, Hood and Kanter return on below-market deals. Curry will likely want to cash in after missing the 2017-18 season rehabbing his knee and proving this season he can still be helpful rotation player for a winner. Hood has put his playoff demons to rest with his strong play and hits a free-agent market light on shooting guards. Kanter also earned himself some coin after he averaged a double-double this postseason until Tuesday’s Game 4. 

The Blazers could re-sign one of them or Aminu using the taxpayer’s mid-level exception of three years and $18 million, but they might opt to spread it out on multiple players. Names like Wayne Ellington, Mario Hezonja and Quincy Pondexter could eye Portland to revitalize their careers like Curry, Hood and Kanter did.

You can also bet that front offices around the league will use the 2018-19 Blazers team as an example of why owners should pay up to keep your core and build around it. The Blazers have caught a lot of heat for their spending sprees. After inking Lillard to a five-year max in 2015, the Blazers doubled down in 2016 and signed McCollum to a four-year, $107 million extension while inking big deals with Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli and Allen Crabbe. 

The Blazers made a $220 million bet that Lillard and McCollum’s talents and leadership abilities would make them a perennial playoff team who could, at its peak, contend for the Finals. It’s hard to argue with that thinking now. A little over a year after trading for Nurkic at the ’16-17 trade deadline, the Blazers locked him into a four-year, $48 million extension in 2018, which now looks like a steal, even with his horrific injury.

For years, GMs pointed to the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks as “Exhibit A” for preaching patience and waiting for the cracks to break open. While Portland hasn’t won a championship yet, but the ‘18-19 Blazers run may be cited just as much going forward. They may not ever topple the Warriors, but there’s no shame in trying.

2. What did we learn about Zach Collins?

For many, if the Blazers made the playoffs and saw development from the 21-year-old Collins, this season would be seen as a success. 

The first item on that list? Check. The second one? Another check.

Collins showed enough promise this season to make the Blazers feel OK about selecting him 10th overall in the 2018 draft over other big men like Bam Adebayo (14th), John Collins (19th) and Jarrett Allen (22nd). Though he didn’t flash quite the same All-Star potential as those other names, Zach Collins undoubtedly took a step forward this season, becoming a much better shot-blocker and more reliable shooter on open jumpers. 

Collins’ youth was exposed a bit this postseason, biting on the slightest of pump fakes and leading all postseason players in fouls per minute (minimum 100 minutes played). But he should get better with that as he gains more experience and understands player tendencies. He’s certainly not JaVale McGee in that department.

Collins isn’t close to taking Nurkic’s job any time soon and he isn’t ready to be slotted in as the starting power forward quite yet. While Stotts has used Kanter and Collins together a bunch in the frontcourt, the coach has shown little interest in the Collins-Nurkic look as the tandem shared the court for only 65 of Collins’ 1,356 total minutes in the regular season. 

Collins will likely enter 2019-20 as Nurkic’s backup center again alongside Leonard until Collins shows the ability to stretch the floor a bit better. Collins shot just 29.8 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy Sports tracking.

Some executives feared that the Gonzaga product was a local reach at No. 10, but Collins has made himself into a useful NBA player. He still has a ways to go before locking in a big extension next summer. If he doesn’t take a big stride next season, the Blazers should be nervous about bailing on the 21-year-old so soon. That’s how Nurkic landed in their lap in the first place. 

3. Does Damian Lillard deserve the supermax?

When Lillard toed the free-throw line midway through the second quarter, the Moda Center gave him a hearty “M-V-P” chant. It was probably one of a dozen rallying cries this season. But this time, it felt more like a pick-me-up than a declaration. The star point guard had a woeful first three games of the series, shooting just 5-of-20 inside the arc and struggling mightily to pierce the Warriors’ onslaught of double-teams.

Lillard looked spent. And understandably so. Entering Game 4, he had played a league-leading 3,444 minutes this season including the playoffs, which was 153 minutes more than the next-highest player (James Harden). He played 44 minutes in Game 4, extending his lead to nearly 200 minutes. Throw in the fact that Lillard just wrapped up a seven-game series at Denver altitude that included a four-overtime game AND that he suffered a separated rib in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, it’s a wonder the guy was able to be effective at all.

After the series concluded, Lillard sat hunched over on the podium and indicated that fatigue affected him more than the rib injury. He finished with 28 points and 12 assists in the game.

“I’ve played through worse things,” Lillard said. “I think just fatigue, just all the attention after 82 games, this being the deepest we’ve played … Teams are coming after you. That takes energy to deal with that.”

The Warriors treated Lillard like a superstar and he will likely be compensated as one soon. Lillard is expected to sign a supermax extension that could tack on an additional four years and about $190 million to his existing two years and $60 million remaining on his contract, according to a Yahoo! Sports report.

A quarter-billion for a player who’s never won a conference finals game, you might ask? 

Welcome to the new NBA. While polling some NBA general managers recently, the consensus among them was that Lillard will be offered the supermax by the Blazers -- and deservedly so.

“Compared to other supermaxes,” said one rival general manager, “he’s earned it.”

Lillard was a top-five player in the NBA this season by multiple advanced measuring sticks. After leading his team to the No. 3 seed out West, he will likely finish on one of the All-NBA teams this year, locking in his eligibility for the designated veteran extension that is reserved for only the best of the best. To date, Stephen Curry, John Wall, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the only players to have netted the supermax. 

Lillard’s extension wouldn’t kick in until 2021-12 and would take him through his age-35 season, if they come to such an agreement. Lillard has been as consistent as they come, averaging between 25 and 27 points per game in each of the last four seasons and never missing more than nine games in any of his seven seasons in the league.

Lillard’s extension comes at a somewhat troubling time in Portland. Following Allen’s death in October, the Blazers are expected to be up for sale in the coming years. In February, the Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish indicated to The Oregonian that the expectation is that it will take five or six years for Allen’s estate to be settled.

“We expect the team will be on the market,” Fish told The Oregonian. 

A Lillard supermax extension won’t be a deterrent for bidders. In league circles, the feeling is that a Lillard commitment would only make the franchise more valuable.

“Have to preserve assets to maximize sale,” said one executive involved in an NBA franchise acquisition. 

Beyond Lillard’s presence, there’s plenty to excited about for potential bidders. For one, it’s an NBA franchise; there are only 30 of those. They fill their arena on a regular basis (my ears are still ringing from fans cheering during the highs of Game 4). The Blazers have reached the playoffs for six straight seasons. With Dwyane Wade retired, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook may be the only veterans as beloved by their home city as Lillard is in Rip City. 

Of course, the core comes at a steep cost. With Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic locked in for the long haul, this team has over $200 million of outlays on their cap sheet even before Lillard’s supermax kicks in. But take it from one former Blazer in Kerr: This is a team worth keeping together. And that includes Lillard.

“I have so much respect and admiration for Terry (Stotts) and his staff and the players,” Kerr said. “What Damian (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum) do as leaders and as a backcourt together, it’s amazing to watch. I know this city loves its team and they should love this version of this team, as much as any of them, because they are a great group.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

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NBC Sports

Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t messing around. On Tuesday, Ben Simmons signed a full maximum extension, worth $170 million over five years, to remain with the team that drafted him No.1 overall in 2017. With Joel Embiid already under contract through 2022-23, Philly GM Elton Brand locks in one of the best young duos in the NBA for at least the next four seasons.

Simmons’ extension isn’t a total surprise, but it’s still an enormous commitment from the Sixers once you account for the rest of the core’s price tag. The 22-year-old’s salary will jump from $8.1 million in 2019-20 to $29.3 million in 2020-21 and escalate gradually to $38.6 million in 2024-25. 

Haberstroh: Sixers smart to reload with Harris, Horford

With the re-signing of Tobias Harris and the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the Sixers will be paying $131.5 million to just five players in 2020-21. To illustrate how steep that outlay is, consider that the salary cap is projected to be $116 million. (CBA 101: teams can go over the cap to re-sign its own players, generally speaking). According to ESPN, all five years are guaranteed with significant bonuses tied to All-NBA honors in 2019-20. 

Is paying all that guaranteed money to Simmons a wise investment? 

I wouldn’t think twice about it. He deserves it. Simmons is an elite NBA player, even at age 22 (he turns 23 next week). He averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 56 percent shooting in his second season in the league, becoming the youngest player in this past season’s All-Star Game in Charlotte.

Still, Simmons remains a basketball riddle. Consider that his top statistical comparables in FiveThirtyEight’s model include names like James Worthy, Grant Hill, Bernard King, Brad Daugherty, Blake Griffin and Andrew Bogut. All over the place. If you asked a Magic 8 Ball about Simmons’ future, it’d probably read, “Cannot Predict Now.”

Who is Ben Simmons? The irony is he’s himself, to a T. Simmons’ first two seasons in the league were just about carbon copies of one another. To wit:

In 2017-18, he played 2,732 minutes. 
In 2018-19, he played 2,700 minutes.

In 2017-18, he took 12.3 shots per game and made 6.8.
In 2018-19, he took 12.2 shots per game and made 6.7. 

In 2017-18, he averaged 8.2 assists and 3.5 turnovers.
In 2018-19, he averaged 7.7 assists and 3.6 turnovers.

In 2017-18, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.
In 2018-19, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.

And his other advanced metrics were eerily similar, too. 

Some might call that uncanny consistency. Others might call it a red flag. But criticizing Simmons’ plateau in Year 2 ignores the fact that most of the players on the All-Rookie teams had either even or down years. Most everyone expected huge things from Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball in 2018-19. None of them took a huge step forward. (Mitchell came on strong late in the regular season, but struggled mightily in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets.)

Simmons’ postseason saw wild swings from clear superstar to critically flawed. The best game of his young career notably came in a playoff setting, one in which Embiid sat out with a sore knee. Entering Game 3 tied 1-1 in the series against the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons erupted for 31 points and nine assists on the road without his co-star. That virtuoso performance came on the heels of Jared Dudley saying Simmons was “average” in the halfcourt. Simmons responded in a big way.

That’s the Simmons that Philly fans want to see every night. But over the next nine games, Simmons averaged just 12.1 points, including four straight games without making a free throw.

Look, he’s 22. We want Simmons to be a finished product who dominates every playoff game he’s in, but he’s years away from his prime, and the Sixers just locked in his age 24 to age 28 seasons.

The most tantalizing aspect of Simmons’ game is his defense. Thanks to his versatility, it’s possible Simmons will win a Defensive Player of the Year award by the time this contract is done. At 6-foot-10 with point guard speed and instincts, Simmons has the ability to thwart just about any player in the game. According to research by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu, Simmons was one of nine starters who guarded all five positions at least 10 percent of the time on the floor last season. None of them were as young as Simmons.

It’s rare for a player to show a knack for defense at Simmons’ age. It was Simmons, not Jimmy Butler, that took on the Kawhi Leonard assignment in critical moments of the playoffs. There were lapses, to be sure, but he was 22 freaking years old going against the best player in the world. Getting young players to commit defensively in the NBA is like pulling teeth. Simmons wants to be a Defensive Player of the Year one day, which is a huge win in and of itself.

Simmons’ lack of a jumper has many folks howling about how Embiid and Simmons are horrible fits next to each other. The numbers don’t agree. With the two young stars on the floor this postseason, the Sixers outscored opponents by 19.5 points per 100 possessions. Here are some postseason net ratings for star duos (net rating is points ahead/behind every 100 possessions while on the floor): Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, minus-1.3; Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus-3.0; Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, plus-7.8; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, plus-9.6. Again: Simmons and Embiid, plus-19.5.

Some of that juggernaut rating is a reflection of JJ Redick, Harris and Butler often being on the floor as well, but it’s undeniable that the Sixers have thrived with Simmons and Embiid on the court. The fit isn’t perfect, but Simmons and Embiid complement each other in other ways. 

While Embiid lumbers up the floor, Simmons blitzes past defenders in the open court. Simmons’ ability to execute high-level passes in tight spaces has resulted in Embiid shooting 45.5 percent on 2-pointers off of Simmons’ passes compared to 41.5 percent on 2-pointers from all other teammates, per NBA.com tracking. Simmons assisted more of Embiid’s buckets than Butler and T.J. McConnell combined. (Side note: the Sixers are going to miss Redick’s playmaking next season).

Would a reliable jumper help Simmons’ impact? Of course it would. But you could say that about a lot of players -- most valuable ones, too.

The reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has shot 26.5 percent from downtown over the last five seasons. Russell Westbrook, another MVP, has shot above 30 percent on 3-pointers once in the last five seasons. Westbrook has made 216 more 3-pointers than Simmons has over the last two seasons, but he’s also missed 504 more 3-pointers than Simmons over the last two seasons. Those misses matter, too.

Taking more 3-pointers would probably be good both for Simmons’ development and the Sixers’ spacing. But excessive 3-point shooting from bad shooters can be just as hurtful to NBA offense. Yes, the offense can become clogged when it slows to the halfcourt and playoff teams can exploit that. But even with the iffy shot and fit with Embiid, the Sixers were the eighth-best offense in the NBA. Not historic, but pretty darn good. And they were a bounce or two from the Eastern Conference Finals.

Simmons’ lack of range has generated some polarizing opinions on the player. Some think Simmons is another Michael Carter-Williams (there are a lot of blue check marks here). But that’s incredibly unfair to an elite finisher like Simmons, who owns a 57.0 true-shooting percentage in his career compared to Carter-Williams’ 47.1 percent over his first two seasons -- not even in the same sphere. Simmons is much closer to Magic than MCW.

While I think many go overboard on Simmons’ lack of a jumper, I am not holding my breath that he’ll add one. Brook Lopez famously didn’t make a 3-pointer until his seventh year in the league and he’s now one of the NBA’s most prolific 3-point shooters. But Lopez was an excellent free throw shooter (81 percent in his first two seasons) and regularly exhibited a knockdown mid-range shot. 

Simmons’ lack of a single made 3-pointer in his two seasons grabs headlines, but it’s his poor free throw shooting (58.3 percent) and lack of mid-range game that make me skeptical it’ll ever become a go-to weapon. Since 2000, there are 25 players who have zero 3-pointers in at least 3,000 minutes over their first two seasons. The list is almost exclusively centers. The ones that eventually added a 3-point shot -- Lopez, Marc Gasol and Horford -- all shot at least 70 percent from the line. 

Simmons, however, owns a free-throw shooting percentage that ranks 23rd of 25 players, just ahead of Mason Plumlee and Bismack Biyombo and just behind fellow Klutch client and workout buddy Tristan Thompson. I probably don’t have to tell you that Plumlee, Biyombo and Thompson have yet to add any semblance of a 3-point shot. 

But Simmons does outrank all of those non-shooting centers in one category: total win shares. Again, just because Simmons doesn’t have a jump shot doesn’t mean he can’t be a dominant player. 

It all boils down to this: Simmons instantly vaults into the MVP conversation if he adds a jumper to his game. Players that are one skill away from MVP talk absolutely deserve the max. Players in that realm are almost never 22 years old. Simmons is already there.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

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Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

If you’re the Houston Rockets, which star would be the ideal fit with James Harden?

First, the star would have to be OK with not having the ball in his hands. In the best-case scenario, said star is a sharpshooter who can defend multiple positions at a high-level. On top of that, he’d have young legs to ease Harden’s burden as he enters his thirties.

In other words, it’s probably not Russell Westbrook. 

On Monday, the Rockets reportedly traded for the 2016-17 MVP, pairing him with James Harden to form one of the most intriguing duos in the NBA at a cost of a combined $340 million over the next four seasons (Westbrook and Harden each have player options for nearly $47 million in 2022-23). As part of the deal, the Rockets traded Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. 

For the Rockets, it’s a bold move, but it’s tough to ignore the scent of desperation. Houston general manager Daryl Morey valiantly fought off rumors about Paul’s reported trade demand and publicly guaranteed that Paul and Harden would be back next season.

It took less than a month for Morey to reverse course and trade Paul to a Western Conference rival so he could reunite Harden and Westbrook for a championship push. It can’t be overstated that the most 3-point obsessed team in NBA history just traded for the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. Westbrook’s career 30.8 percent 3-point field goal percentage is the worst in NBA history among the 110 players with at least 2,750 3-point attempts, per Basketball Reference.com.

One rival general manager called it a “panic move” by Houston, calling the pick-sweetened package “too rich” to send OKC’s way.

Westbrook seems heretical to Morey’s gospel of efficiency. Over the last decade, there’s only been one player who used at least 30 percent of their team’s offenses possessions with worse shot efficiency than Westbrook last season. That was Kobe Bryant during his farewell tour two seasons after a torn Achilles.

Morey doesn’t have his head in the sand when it comes to Westbrook’s inefficiency. Quite the opposite. In April 2017, I interviewed Morey on an ESPN podcast while his player, Harden, was up for the MVP award. Harden had lost steam in the public eye compared to Westbrook, who was averaging a triple-double on the season.

Of course, at the time, Morey was stumping for his guy, Harden, and attempting to delicately discredit the other candidates without formally naming them (Westbrook eventually won the award). Without saying the word “triple-double” Morey made it clear that that was an overly simplistic MVP criteria.

“For me, the argument is pretty straightforward and simple,” said Morey. “Don’t get distracted by the easy catchphrases.”

Morey continued, citing Houston’s No. 3 seed in the West.

“Call me crazy, but historically people who watch the NBA know that (players) can put up numbers on average to below-average teams and that’s why they don’t vote for those candidates. Call me crazy, but if you’re a dominant player and primarily dominant on offense and you’re not even an above-average offense in the NBA, it seems hard to say you’re making an impact.”

“On top of that, the other guy (Harden) who is putting up basically the same dominant numbers is leading the top-10 offense ever, not below average in the NBA this season.”

When Morey was asked more pointedly about Westbrook’s candidacy, the Houston GM again harped on Westbrook’s box-score numbers not translating to team success.

“(Westbrook)’s having one of the greatest seasons ever. He just happens to be doing it with James Harden also having one of the greatest seasons ever -- and on a team that’s winning. There’s really no precedent when two people are having absolutely historic seasons that they give it to the guy who is generating his value on the side of the ball where his team isn’t even above average.”

That was in 2017, but it might as well be right now. 

Last season, Westbrook again averaged a triple-double while his team finished 16th in offensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. And that was while Westbrook’s teammate, Paul George, had an MVP-caliber season. What’s more, the Thunder still couldn’t get out of the first round, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.

So, what makes the Rockets think they can do better with Westbrook and Harden? 

This appears to be a situation where Houston’s new owner Tilman Fertitta may have gotten impatient after a Western Conference semifinals loss to the Golden State Warriors and then went on a rant saying the Rockets should have, uh, cut the Warriors’ throats.

"I can promise you, we're gonna win some championships with James Harden because we're not going to sit here," Fertitta said. "We're going to battle every year. We're going to have a strong offseason, and we're gonna do whatever it takes to be a better team. We're not gonna sit on our hands. I can promise you that."

"I'm a fighter. That's my culture," Fertitta said. "The longer I own this team, they're gonna pick up more of my culture. We had 'em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It's step on their throats, and let's take it back to Houston and end it in six."

For what it’s worth, Westbrook certainly fits into that fighter culture. A one-of-a-kind athlete, he’s also three and a half years younger than Paul, and lines up closer with Harden’s career trajectory. Harden turns 30 years old in August and 33 at the end of his deal, while Westbrook turns 31 in November and will be 34 in 2022-23. But there are more than enough reasons to be concerned about Westbrook as he enters the back half of his career.

It starts with his injury history. Beginning with the collision with then-Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook has undergone five procedures on his troublesome right knee, most recently a clean-up in May and arthroscopic surgery last September that wiped out his preseason. For someone who relies on his wheels so much, that has to be a concern.

Most alarming, there are signs his physical decline has already started. In his age-30 season, coming off that September surgery, Westbrook finished with just 33 dunks, 24 fewer than in 2017-18. Just 2.9 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks, tying a career low, per Basketball Reference. He notably had zero dunks in the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Blazers.

Some of that drop may be attributed to an early-season injury to his plant leg, an ankle sprain, that caused him to miss six games in November. But it’s also noteworthy that Westbrook experienced a bizarre drop in his ability to draw fouls during the regular season, taking only 6.2 free throws per game and making just 65.6 percent of them (down from 10.4 attempts and 84.6 percent in his MVP season).

When he is healthy, Westbrook plays like he’s shot out of a cannon, but it backfires far too often. Playing next to George was supposed to free up open shots and help Westbrook become more efficient. Instead, Westbrook became the worst version of himself, hijacking the offense with premature jumpers and getting careless in transition.  Westbrook ranked dead-last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Only 22-year-old Ben Simmons coughed up the ball more times in these open-court situations, fueling the critique that Westbrook plays with a low basketball IQ even at this stage of his career.

Fastbreak opportunities are normally an integral part of a healthy NBA offense. But in the case of Westbrook, his tendencies have become so hurtful last season that him finishing a transition play was less efficient than OKC’s halfcourt offense (0.87 points per play versus 0.93 points per play). 

As the architect of the Seven Seconds Or Less Offense in Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni may be able to wean some of the headaches out of Westbrook’s game, but expecting him to make a wholesale change at this point in his career isn’t a smart bet. 

Perhaps D’Antoni tinkers with the iso-heavy offense that defined the Harden-Paul era and tries to step on the gas. Last season, the Rockets were the NBA’s fourth-slowest team in pace factor, a measure of possessions every 48 minutes. And it worked, with the Rockets ranking second in offensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Harden’s one-on-one dominance. 

Last season, Harden finished with 1,280 isolations and was the NBA’s most efficient player in those situations, scoring 1.11 points per isolation, according to Synergy tracking. The player that ranked last in isolation efficiency last season? Yup, Westbrook, at just 0.75 points per play. 

So, Westbrook is inefficient playing fast and playing slow. D’Antoni certainly has his work cut out for him. 

Westbrook should find some easier pathways to the rim with Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker flanking him, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Harden and Westbrook ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in turnovers last season. Meanwhile, Paul finished with half as many turnovers as Westbrook (152 to 325) and remains one of the most efficient point guards ever.

From a schematic point of view, Westbrook makes little sense next to Harden. With Harden pounding the rock in isolations and pick-and-roll attacks, why guard Westbrook off the ball? Paul shot over 43 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Westbrook made just 53-of-166 (31.9 percent).

Maybe that’s the idea, to just have Westbrook not shoot 3-pointers. But at least defenders had to respect Paul as a shooter. With Westbrook off ball, Harden will see more defenders in his way to the rim.

There’s also this: point guards who rely on speed and athleticism don’t age particularly well. Consider that his top comp in FiveThirtyEight’s similarity model, Isiah Thomas, played his last game at the age of 32 after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 1994. Though that injury was a career-ender, Thomas had already planned to retire that season because too many nagging injuries had sapped his effectiveness. In his last two playoff runs, following the 82-game grind, Thomas labored his way to just 13.7 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the floor.

The Rockets could look at Westbrook and see Jason Kidd, who is the third-closest comp on the FiveThirtyEight list. The triple-double maestro from Cal famously added a full-throttle 3-point shot in his mid-30s and enjoyed a career renaissance in Dallas that culminated in a championship in 2011. That’s the best-case scenario for Westbrook if everything falls into place, but Kidd was a significantly better shooter even at this stage of his career. 

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City continues one of the quickest, and most impressive, teardowns in NBA history. The Thunder were eyeing one of the biggest payrolls the league had ever seen before George reportedly went to GM Sam Presti with a trade request last week. The Thunder could have hung on and tried to tread water, but a Westbrook-centric team weighed down by the four years and $171 million remaining on his supermax extension wasn’t the most prudent decision for a small-market team. Though Paul has three years of max money left, it’s one year shorter than Westbrook’s (if Westbrook picks up his player option in 2022-23).

If the Thunder choose to keep Paul, he could mentor 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and run point alongside Dennis Schroder with Terrence Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams anchoring the frontcourt alongside Nerlens Noel and Andre Roberson, who’s returning from knee surgery. That could be a playoff contender, but it’s more likely that OKC spins Paul to a team with true championship aspirations.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder are already working with Paul’s agents to move him to a new team. If Denver sputters to start next season, would it trade Paul Millsap for Paul and accelerate their title contention now that they have former OKC stretch four Jerami Grant? That’s one possibility. According to ESPN, the Miami Heat discussed a possible Westbrook trade with the Thunder and are prominently involved in Paul trade discussions as they try to land a co-pilot for Jimmy Butler.

But OKC is loaded with assets now and can take their time with Paul and with their future. Usually teams have to lure other teams with a first-round pick sweetener to take on money like Westbrook and George, but it’s a testament to Presti’s roster that he was able to turn the tables. Teams gave the Thunder picks to take on their money. Presti brokered a record-setting deal to acquire five first-round picks and two picks swaps with the Los Angeles Clippers for George and his three-year contract (player option on the third season). They received another protected pick from Denver for Grant, giving the Thunder potentially 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts.

In exchange for those picks and a bright future, Presti ended the OKC Thunder as we know them. I’ll never forget seeing James Harden drape his arms around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Miami after the Heat had sealed the 2012 NBA Finals. Despite the five-game loss, OKC looked destined to assemble its own dynasty one day. Seven years later, all three are gone and the Thunder never got back to the Finals. 

Now, the Rockets are banking on Harden and Westbrook to rediscover their old magic in Houston. Maybe it works. With Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the West is as wide open as it’s been in years. Maybe Westbrook’s reckless, driving style pairs perfectly next to the shooting of Harden, Gordon and Tucker. Maybe the old OKC Thunder duo return to their glory together and finally get the Rockets over the postseason hump that’s stalled them for the past three seasons. Vegas sportsbooks actually view this deal as improving the Rockets title odds.

But I don’t see it. Between Westbrook’s injuries, declining play and the bizarre on-court fit, this feels like a reunion that’s doomed to fail.

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