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Oklahoma City Thunder's rebuild will take some time

Tue Jul 16 2:46am ET
By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer

Players: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George, Jerami Grant

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Yosef Maaroof wanted one more Russell Westbrook memory in Oklahoma City.

When he learned Thursday night the Thunder were planning to send Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and draft picks, the 20-year-old Tulsa resident planned to make the two-hour drive to Oklahoma City with friends. They wanted to take videos and photos in front of the large images of Thunder players that adorn Chesapeake Energy Arena during the season, hoping Westbrook's photo would still be up on Friday morning.

It wasn't, so Maaroof came up with a different tribute. In a video he posted on Twitter, he put on the Westbrook jerseys he's collected since 2012 , took them off one by one and laid them side by side in front of the arena. He wore 18 in the video, which has been viewed more than 85,000 times.

Maaroof said Westbrook has always been his favorite player. And the next addition to his collection will be a Rockets jersey.

''He was never perfect, but just the emotion he showed - he was very relatable, I feel like,'' Maaroof said. ''He was the underdog. People have always just not appreciated him the way they should have.''

With their emotional sparkplug gone, the Thunder, as we knew them, are no more. Westbrook was the last remaining player from the team that moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Paul George and others, all gone. Now Westbrook.

He spent his entire 11-year career with the Thunder, despite earlier chances to leave. With Westbrook, the Thunder won at least 45 games for 10 straight years and reached the Western Conference Finals four times, including a run to the NBA Finals in 2012.

''It's a lot of heartbreak,'' Maaroof said as he recalled recent conversations with his friends. ''Not to be dramatic, but it really feels like someone died. We're all 20 years old, so we all grew up with Russ, grew up with this team, pretty much through middle school, high school, college now.''

Sure, Westbrook was a league MVP, two-time scoring champion and two-time All-Star MVP. Yes, he was a freakish athlete and triple-double threat every night. And against the odds, he evolved from perceived ball hog to two-time assist leader.

But it goes beyond that for Thunder fans. Westbrook is from the Los Angeles area, and with it came the flash and style one might expect. But he adopted Oklahoma and supported the community with his reading rooms, basketball camps, comedy shows and his yearly Thanksgiving meal at the Boys and Girls Club in Oklahoma City. The night everyone learned Westbrook was being dealt, he was at a comedy club in Tulsa for a benefit show.

''He's like the staple of the franchise,'' Tulsa comic Hynni B said. ''He makes you want to stand up, he makes you want to have heart. You know where he came from, you know what he's doing for the community. It's hurtful to see him to leave.''

Most of all, he'll be remembered as the one who had stayed. He signed an extension in 2016, then signed a long-term deal in 2017, forever endearing himself to Oklahoma City fans who felt burned by Durant's departure for rival Golden State.

''When he stuck it out, it was like bro, this is our leader,'' said Jerry Manna, a Tulsa resident at the comedy show. ''This is our guy. After he did that, I didn't care what nobody said. I wasn't accepting no Westbrook slander. No sir.''

Westbrook teamed up with Durant and Harden to introduce the Thunder as a league power early this decade. At their height, the young trio led the franchise to the finals seven years ago, a loss to the Miami Heat. Now, Westbrook will be re-united with Harden.

The run in Oklahoma City wasn't supposed to end yet, but George left first for the Los Angeles Clippers, opening the door for an earlier-than-expected reboot. Thunder forward Jerami Grant was traded before Westbrook, and now Oklahoma City has added multiple first-round picks for its rebuilding project. It will take time and coach Billy Donovan will get plenty of chances to tinker with his lineup and give young players experience.

The Thunder haven't been in this mode since the 2008-09 season, but Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said it is time to embrace it. He notes that the same general manager who brought the success - Sam Presti - is still running the show. And that offers a sliver of hope for aching Thunder fans.

''We're getting a king's ransom for that,'' Holt said of the Westbrook trade. ''He's taking what would have been a nuclear winter at the end of their contracts and quite possibly jumping us into a new chapter a lot faster than we might have expected.''

Westbrook is one of the most accomplished current players without an NBA title. In the three seasons after Durant left, Westbrook's Thunder never made it past the first round of the playoffs, even with George. And Westbrook often found his way into conflict. His spark ignited the Thunder, but he often was among the league leaders in technical fouls in recent years. He has stubbornly defended his tendency to shoot more 3-pointers than his percentage indicates he should.

All was forgiven once the news broke. Thunder fans have spent the past several days reminiscing about Westbrook's biggest moments - from the crazy scoop shot against the Lakers in the 2012 playoffs, to the 50-point triple-double and game-winning 3-pointer against Denver that clinched the NBA single-season triple-double record, to the 20-20-20 game this past season against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, they're left with memories and hopes that the rebuild works out sooner than later. And of course, they will have the memories he creates when he comes back with the Rockets. Leslie Mahan, a moderator/administrator for Thunder fan pages on Facebook, believes the fans will welcome Westbrook when he returns.

''I honestly think that each time he comes back here, people are going to love and respect him and not boo him because he did a lot for the team, for the organization and for Oklahoma as a whole,'' Mahan said.

Westbrook will still have his fans in Oklahoma City.

''I'm still going to be a Thunder fan, but I don't plan on missing a Rockets game this season, either,'' Maaroof said.

Player Notes
DeMarcus Cousins Aug 15 1:00pm ET

Los Angeles Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins has torn his ACL during workouts. With this injury happening in mid-August, Cousins' recovery window means we likely won't see him on an NBA floor this upcoming season. It's a huge blow for a player who was still working to get back to full strength after an Achilles rupture two seasons ago. With Cousins out, expect JaVale McGee to start at center. We could also see more lineups with Anthony Davis playing the five and Kyle Kuzma working as a stretch four.

Trey Burke Jul 25 10:30pm ET

Point guard Trey Burke has signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. Because the Sixers lack depth at point guard behind Ben Simmons, Burke has a chance to play a decent role on this team if he's able to beat out Shake Milton for minutes. Burke should be able to do that. Still, he doesn't have much fantasy value outside of deeper leagues, because the Sixers are going to rely heavily on their starting five and give Josh Richardson some time at the point.

Dragan Bender Jul 25 11:50am ET

Despite reports that he already signed a deal to play in Russia next season, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that former Suns power forward Dragan Bender has agreed to a two-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. It's hard to see a role for Bender in Milwaukee, as he's basically been a very, very inefficient stretch big for Phoenix. There's a reason it took this long for an NBA team to sign him, so don't expect much production from Bender this season.

Pau Gasol Jul 24 8:00pm ET

Free agent center/power forward Pau Gasol has signed a one-year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he'll likely back up starting center Hassan Whiteside. Gasol's reached a point in his career where his presence on the floor isn't really that useful for anyone, and it's hard to see him having much fantasy value this upcoming season, especially with Jusuf Nurkic (leg) likely to return in the second half of the season, which would make Gasol the third center at best. He's best avoided in fantasy league.

Furkan Korkmaz Jul 24 1:40pm ET

The Philadelphia 76ers have re-signed forward Furkan Korkmaz to a two-year deal. Korkmaz appeared in 48 games for the Sixers last year and started in seven of those. He shot just 32.6 percent from three, averaging 5.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. Philadelphia is deeper this year, which makes it hard to see how Korkmaz fits into the team's plans, but with the first year of his contract fully guaranteed, he'll very likely be on the final roster as the 11th or 12th man. Korkmaz should not be drafted in fantasy.

John Wall Jul 22 6:00pm ET

Washington Wizards guard John Wall tore his Achilles in February and is expected to miss the entire 2019-2020 season. While the timetable for Achilles rehab could theoretically put Wall on track to return near the end of next season, the Wizards plan to be cautious with their point guard. Wall should be off the fantasy re-draft radar at this point. Expect to see Bradley Beal and Ish Smith play most of Washington's guard minutes, with Smith in particular in line for an increase in production as the team's starting point guard.

Kostas Antetokounmpo Jul 21 7:30pm ET

The Los Angeles Lakers have claimed forward Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers from the Mavericks. Antetokounmpo is on a two-way contract, which will restrict how long he's able to be on the Lakers main roster this season, and it's highly unlikely that the team will give him minutes even when he's available, because the Lakers are in win-now mode with LeBron James and Anthony Davis and don't have time to develop Antetokounmpo. Many seem to think the claiming was done to show Antetokounmpo's brother, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, that he should come to Los Angeles when he hits free agency in a couple of years. This move doesn't move the fantasy needle for the 2019-2020 season, though it definitely could have some long term implications.

Justin Holiday Jul 19 6:10pm ET

Free agent guard Justin Holiday has signed a one-year deal with the Indiana Pacers, where he joins his brother Aaron. Last year, Holiday split time between Chicago and Memphis, playing in 82 games with 77 starts and putting up averages of 10.5 points and 3.9 rebounds on 38.6 percent shooting. Indiana's a better team and because of that won't afford Holiday with the same amount of minutes, but he gives the Pacers a bench option who can hit a ton of threes. There's late round fantasy value here, but not as much as there was for Holiday last season.

Dragan Bender Jul 17 5:20pm ET

Another NBA player appears to be returning to international play, as power forward Dragan Bender has reportedly agreed to a multi-year deal with CSKA Moscow. Bender, whose team option was declined by the Suns and was a free agent, found the NBA free agency landscape to be a tough place for him and despite interest from the Cleveland Cavaliers, it appears Bender's NBA days are over for now. He averaged just five points and four rebounds in 46 games for the Suns last year, including 27 starts. There's enough promise to hold onto him in deeper dynasty leagues, but he's now a non-factor in redraft.

Blake Griffin Jul 16 1:10pm ET

Last season, Detroit Pistons power forward Blake Griffin dealt with a knee injury that limited his availability at the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs, which led Griffin to have knee surgery in the offseason. The surgery wasn't expected to keep Griffin out of any offseason activities, and Tuesday's announcement that he's resumed light basketball activities keeps Griffin on track to be a full go for the 2019-2020 season. Knee injuries are definitely something to be concerned over, but as long as Griffin is able to take the court when the season opens, his usage on this Pistons team will make him a strong fantasy basketball option next season. There's injury risk, but Griffin's upside is undeniable.

Brandon Clarke Jul 16 12:00am ET

Memphis Grizzlies rookie forward Brandon Clarke was named the MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League. In six games, Clarke averaged 14.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest, showing that he can be a valuable piece of the Grizzlies' rotation this upcoming season. The Grizzlies are a young and rebuilding team, and Clarke is bound to get plenty of minutes in the team's front court this season. He's going to be a valuable fantasy contributor thanks to his ability to score efficiently and rebound well.

Henry Ellenson Jul 16 12:00am ET

The Brooklyn Nets have signed power forward Henry Ellenson to a two-way contract. Ellenson's first three NBA seasons -- split between the Pistons and Knicks -- have largely been disappointments, and he finished last season with an average of six points and 3.5 rebounds per game in just 19 appearances. A two-way deal will limit how much time Ellenson is able to spend on an NBA roster, which means most of his season will be spent with Brooklyn's G-League affiliate in Long Island. Any value Ellenson may have had if he'd signed an actual NBA contract has evaporated with this move.

J.R. Smith Jul 15 11:30pm ET

The Cleveland Cavaliers have waived veteran guard J.R. Smith, clearing the way for Smith to join a contending team. Smith averaged 6.7 points and shot just 30.8 percent from the field last season, but played in just 11 games for Cleveland. A healthy Smith could be a decent bench piece for a playoff team, but he's unlikely to find a role where he'll be more than a team's fourth or fifth guard. That means Smith's fantasy stock is likely to vary wildly on a game-to-game basis, making him someone not worth rostering in most league formats. The only exception would be if Smith doesn't sign with a contender and prioritizes signing somewhere where he'll receive minutes, though it's unclear if a team like that exists.

Tyson Chandler Jul 12 3:20pm ET

The Houston Rockets have signed veteran center Tyson Chandler, who played 55 games last season for the Suns and Lakers. Chandler averaged just 3.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and he'll likely be mired in the back of the Houston rotation this year, seeing 10-15 minutes per game on what could be an irregular basis. This signing doesn't matter for fantasy purposes unless Houston's starting center Clint Capela misses time, in which case Chandler may have a little value in deep leagues.

Chris Paul Jul 11 10:10pm ET

The Houston Rockets have traded point guard Chris Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook. It's hard to know what to make of the deal for Paul, because so much remains up in the air. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Thunder are still looking to move Paul after the deal, so there's a very good chance he never plays a game in a Thunder uniform. If he does, he'll likely see a larger usage rate than he has in previous seasons and receive a boost in his statistical output, but the looming threat of another trade leads us to grade this move as an incomplete.

Russell Westbrook Jul 11 10:00pm ET

The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets have completed a deal that sends point guard Russell Westbrook to Houston, pairing him once again with former teammate James Harden. With Paul George no longer in Oklahoma City, Westbrook was set to have a huge season statistically, but he'll go back to playing a role similar to the one he played last year, when he saw a drop in shot attempts and averaged 22.9 points per game, down almost 10 points from his pre-George numbers. Westbrook will also see a reduction in assists playing beside another ball-dominant player, and it would be a surprise to see him lead the league in that category for the third straight year. Overall, Westbrook's value takes a slight hit, though he'll still probably go at the end of the first in fantasy drafts.

Coby White Jul 11 11:00am ET

Chicago Bulls rookie point guard Coby White is expected to take a backseat to some of the team's other options this upcoming season. Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said that White's got a lot of learning to do and that the speed of the game could be an issue for White, while head coach Jim Boylen has already said Kris Dunn is the team's starting point guard. With Tomas Satoransky in the picture too, it doesn't look like White's going to be fantasy relevant in the early stages of his rookie campaign.

Kelly Oubre Jr. Jul 11 11:00am ET

Restricted free agent forward Kelly Oubre Jr. has signed a two-year deal to remain with the Phoenix Suns. Oubre is a solid player who's likely to end up starting at the three for the Suns, and he has solid fantasy upside as a guy who can give Phoenix something close to 15 points and five rebounds per game. Last season was also Oubre's most efficient year as an NBA shooter, and he can be a good fantasy pick in the later rounds of fantasy drafts because of his ability to do a lot of things on the basketball court, even if he isn't going to excel at any one thing.

Avery Bradley Jul 8 3:30pm ET

Shooting guard Avery Bradley is expected to sign a two-year, $9.7 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers upon his clearing of waivers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. The Grizzlies waived Bradley earlier in the summer, paving the way for the former NBA All-Defensive First Team selection to join a revamped Lakers roster. The second year of Bradley's contract is reported to have a player option, as he'll join Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing in 2019-20. After showcasing his offensive game (16.1 points per contest) over 14 games with Memphis to conclude last season, he may revert to his traditional role of defensive stopper with Los Angeles, which could stunt his upward fantasy trajectory.

DeMarcus Cousins Jul 7 1:00am ET

The Lakers have signed free agent center DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. The 28-year-old, who played just 30 regular season games with the Warriors in 2019 after recovering from an Achilles injury the year prior, averaged only 16.3 points and 8.2 boards per contest while playing a career-low 25.7 minutes. He will be reunited with former Pelicans teammates Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo in his new home in Los Angeles and will look to remain healthy in hopes of getting paid next Summer.