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Small-market reality hits Thunder with Harden deal

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Small-market reality hits Thunder with Harden deal

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) The first big dose of small-market reality has hit the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Before the Thunder even played their first real game following a trip to the NBA finals, the franchise parted ways with Sixth Man of the Year James Harden in a trade with the Houston Rockets, fracturing the team's core and substantially changing the second unit.

``We made several efforts to try to make this work,'' general manager Sam Presti said at a news conference Sunday.

``I think there's a point in every negotiation where you start to realize where things are lining up, and at that point you have to play the hand that you're dealt. I feel like as an organization, we've made some tough decisions. This one was right up there with them.''

Presti said the Thunder made what was supposed to be a final offer on Friday, then approached him one last time before pulling off the trade Saturday night - making sure that Harden realized he could be dealt if he didn't accept.

But Harden, who developed into one of the league's most dynamic shooting guards after being the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft, still wanted more.

Oklahoma City already had All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook plus NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka inked to long-term, eight-figure deals and - even with an arena upgraded by taxpayer funds that's sold out for every game - wasn't willing to offer him a maximum contract.

Presti said the Thunder made an ``extraordinary effort'' to keep Harden and side-stepped whether the team tried to low-ball Harden.

``That's for other people to determine, I suppose, and ultimately we'll live with that. We understand what we were able to do, and what we did, and the significance and the importance it made, especially considering the commitments that it would have taken our payroll to,'' Presti said. ``Our ownership group was absolutely behind that effort.''

Harden said Sunday he expects to sign a long-term deal with Houston before the regular season starts. He was saying the same thing about Oklahoma City when training camp began.

Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all took marginally less than they could have demanded on the open market to stay in Oklahoma City but Presti suggested ``the term sacrifice gets thrown around maybe too loosely.'' He said the Thunder didn't begrudge Harden for rejecting their offers.

``We're not going to judge anybody. We're not going to put anything on anybody,'' Presti said. ``We're going to do the best thing for the franchise. In a lot of cases, in most cases, the players are going to do the best things for them. You hope that those things overlap, and we've been very fortunate they have overlapped in a lot of cases.''

The Thunder simply aren't in a position to spend like the Miami Heat, who went over the cap to add Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis after beating Oklahoma City in the finals, or the Los Angeles Lakers, who added All-Stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a lineup that already featured Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

``I think we all know that James Harden was a big part of their team. That goes without saying. He was a big part of why they made it to the finals,'' the Heat's LeBron James said. ``They got a couple pieces back that are really good as well. But we don't know how it changes their team until they actually get out there.''

Presti said the Thunder got more for Harden because they dealt him early enough that Houston could re-sign him before a Wednesday deadline to reach a contract extension.

Oklahoma City received guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick in the swap, and also sent Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Rockets. Presti expects the draft picks to be critical to rebuilding quality depth at a low price.

The departure of Harden and, to a lesser degree, Cook and Aldrich rattles Oklahoma City's second unit that already lost veterans Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammed in free agency. Backup point guard Eric Maynor will return after missing most of last season with a knee injury, with power forward Nick Collison the only other holdover from the second five.

First-round draft pick Perry Jones III and free-agent acquisition Hasheem Thabeet figure to move up in the rotation now.

Presti said the Thunder still consider themselves championship contenders - but so does every team in the league when the season starts.

``With the group that we have, they've been through a lot together and they've won a lot of games together. So, for us, of course we're always going to feel like we've got a chance to do good things,'' Presti said. ``However, I would also add that it's never been our approach to do a lot of talking about what it is we're going to do or who we are.

``I think we're at a point as a franchise where we have to do what we say.''

---

AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report from Miami.

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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals remain the class of the division

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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals remain the class of the division

Saturday’s game between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets was built up as a battle for first place. It didn’t take long for Washington show that they remain the class of the division as the Caps walked away with an emphatic 4-0 win.

The  Metropolitan Division is just plain bad this year. New Jersey and Philadelphia are surprisingly atrocious, Carolina is still a player or two (and a goalie) away from being a playoff team, the Rangers will go only as far as Henrik Lundqvist can carry them, the Islanders have made great strides under Barry Trotz but are nowhere close to contending and this looks like Pittsburgh’s weakest team since the Mike Johnston era.

At this point, the only two teams that look like clear playoff teams are Washington and Columbus and even that may be a stretch depending on how the Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky situation pans out for the Blue Jackets.

There’s still a lot of hockey left to play this season, but the Caps made an early statement on Saturday that they remain the team to beat in the Metro and no one looks anywhere close to challenging them at this point.

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few observations from the past week:
•    Tom Wilson provided one heck of a spark when he returned from suspension. The way the Caps responded to his injury with two wins on the road is impressive and says a lot about this team’s mental makeup and resiliency, even more so than how they rallied after Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie both came out of the lineup.
•    Is Kuznetsov all the way back? He just does not seem like the same player who dazzled us in the first month of the season. Yes, he has a five-game point streak, but he is not dominating the game the same way. Earlier in the season, his talent was evident every time he stepped onto the ice. Whenever Connor McDavid is on the ice, you notice him. Whenever Nathan MacKinnon is on the ice, you notice him. That was true of Kuznetsov early on, but has not been true since he returned to the lineup.
•    Oshie is skating which means he is making progress, but the team should take a slow approach to his return. After he suffered a concussion last year from a hit by Joe Thornton, he did not play well when he returned for quite a while. The Caps are winning and are in first place, there’s no reason to really rush him back.
•    The power play is starting to become a major concern. The loss of Oshie certainly hurts, but that unit was starting to struggle even before the game in Winnipeg in which he was injured. When watching the Columbus game on Friday, someone asked Alan May what he thought the problem was and he said zone entries. There’s definitely something to that. The power play still looks as deadly as ever when the team sets it up, but it seems like they are having a real tough time just getting to that point. They just cannot get the puck into the offensive zone and keep possession.

Even with Wilson, Oshie and Orpik out, the Caps keep finding ways to win and that his them climbing up the rankings.

FIND OUT WHERE THEY LAND IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS.

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The Wizards' latest trade breaks up positive pairing

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The Wizards' latest trade breaks up positive pairing

Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith shared several similarities beyond being very tall men. At 32, they were the oldest players on the Wizards roster. Both arrived in Washington during the 2016 free agency period. They each fell out of the Wizards’ playing rotation this season with Thomas Bryant emerging as the starting center.

There’s another.

Despite receiving limited minutes in recent weeks, each remained remarkably upbeat to the point they could hold seminars on the topic of positive thinking.

“That’s the business. We’re in a tough business,” Mahinmi told NBC Sports Washington. “Me being in this league for 12 years, I understand it’s a long season. It’s a process. At the end of the day, you being mad isn’t going to much for yourself or the team. Have to be professional. You got to be positive.”

The Wizards (11-15) close their four-game road swing Monday against the Pacers (16-10). No doubt Mahinmi keeps that attitude Monday night against his former team even if the 6-foot-11 center doesn’t enter the game.

Smith would as well if he still played for the Wizards. Washington traded the 7-footer Friday in a three-team deal with the Bucks and Cavaliers. 

"When you see good basketball out there, it's easy to be upbeat. It's easy to be upbeat for your teammates out there,” Smith said to NBC Sports Washington Friday. Hours later Smith found out positively he was headed to Milwaukee.

Mahinmi remains as does what’s left of that four-year, $64 million contract that expires after the 2019-20 season. The signing was arguably curious from the start because of the contract terms and presence of now ex-Wizard Marcin Gortat. Positivity, perhaps Mahinmi's greatest contribution, doesn't show in the box score and the center's limited production is a constant source of annoyance for fans. 

The 10-year veteran also feels frustration. Mahinmi wants to play, contribute to the cause. For now, and likely going forward, Wizards coach Scott Brooks looks elsewhere except for spot minutes. Mahinmi didn’t play in eight of Washington’s last 11 games. While helpful as a rebounder and defender, he struggles offensively and averages six personal fouls per 36 minutes. 

Through it all, the smile and warmth remain for the husband and father of three. Fatherhood is yet another connection with Smith (and most of the Wizards roster at this point). Listening to them talk about the 21-year-old Bryant made it sound like a co-parenting situation.

“His absolute genuine joy is fun to see,” Smith said like a proud father. 

Despite Saturday’s 116-101 road loss to the Cavaliers, the Wizards are 6-4 since the energetic Bryant entered the starting lineup Nov. 20 against the Clippers. Washington’s season doesn’t hinge on Bryant’s development, but him turning into a steady option is essential. 

That’s an area Mahinmi seeks to offer help just like an NBA legend did for him upon entering the league with the Spurs in 2007.

“I’ll always remember when I was a young player trying to establish myself in this league and thrown into the mix. Obviously, it was very different. I was behind Tim Duncan. It meant everything to have the support of my elders, the vets and everyone around me. I’m trying to do this for (Thomas and the) young guys.”

While not playing consistently isn't ideal, Mahinmi said family life lifts his spirits, and maturity offers a new perspective.

“I can guarantee you if I was younger I wouldn’t be dealing with the challenges with the same approach,” Mahinmi said. “It’s good because basketball isn’t everything for me. I have bigger things, more important things going on in my life.”

Smith’s life changed Friday. He joined his new teammates Sunday and met with the Milwaukee media. He quickly impressed reporters with his attitude. 

Part of Smith knows he needs to impress NBA general managers and scouts with his play. 

His three-year contract, which included a player option of $5.45 million for the current season, expires this summer. Playing in only 12 of Washington’s 25 games before the trade didn’t help the cause of landing another deal.

“I mean, a little bit,” Smith said of free agency weighing on his mind, “but things will work out in the end. I’m 12 years in. This is all icing on the cake for me.”

Regarding his on-court role, it’s been a slippery road for Mahinmi since leaving Indiana in 2016. He’d love to play Monday in one of the NBA cities he considers home. The reality is others offer traits better suited to deal with the Pacers’ interior trio of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and Thad Young.

Maybe Mahinmi, now the final remaining member of the questionable group of 2016 additions, sneaks in for some action. Regardless, the nice man from France will keep up the encouragement.

“You have to be genuinely happy for your teammates,” Mahinmi said. “You’ve got to be willing to go through those times as a player, find the benefits of all challenges. It’s definitely a challenge for myself, for Jason, but I’m here for the team.”

That’s where the similarities with Smith end.

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