The NBA universe is still in the first week of free agency, and the league was back in business to start summer league in Las Vegas following the holiday and the warm up exhibitions in Utah and California.
At least, the league was up and running before Friday’s earthquake halted events.
What have scouts, coaches and executives said about the most important player movement news and young player flashes? Here’s the latest intelligence and buzz-worthy items from the MGM Resorts Summer League.
Russell Westbrook: The summer’s last big domino to fall?
In the wake of the stunning trade that sent Paul George to the LA Clippers — pairing him with Kawhi Leonard in the process — the biggest question buzzing around both gymnasiums here in Las Vegas was an obvious one: what’s going to happen to Russell Westbrook?
The thought from any and all people in attendance Sunday was that this story only has one ending: Westbrook, the standard bearer for the franchise throughout its 11 seasons in Oklahoma City, will get traded at some point. The follow-up questions, however — both when such a deal would happen, and where it would send him — led to more nuanced discussions.
Westbrook has a massive contract — four years and $170 million remaining. He also has a game built upon athleticism and will turn 31 in November. That combination, along with a strong personality, is why the prevailing opinion among insiders is that one of the more likely landing spots is the Miami Heat.
The Jump crew question what Russell Westbrook should do in light of the Paul George trade, with Kendrick Perkins saying Westbrook fits best in Miami.
The mechanics of a trade with Miami will be difficult because the Heat are hard-capped. But the Heat just signed another star this summer who is entering his 30s in Jimmy Butler and have a franchise ethos of always trying to be as competitive as possible. They also have the pieces, including Goran Dragic‘s $19 million expiring contract and forward Justise Winslow, that seem like reasonable building blocks in such a deal.
As recently as 48 hours ago, the idea of Westbrook being traded anywhere wasn’t on anyone’s mind. Today, though, it is a top question around the league water cooler.
— Tim Bontemps
The Clippers’ polarizing pursuits of Leonard and George
Kawhi Leonard’s decision to join the LA Clippers and bring Paul George with him has his team as the favorites to win it all by some oddsmakers, while others believe that the Los Angeles Lakers — who lost out on Leonard — are still better positioned to make noise next season.
“After all the mismanagement and drama they’ve been through, they still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis,” one general manager told ESPN. “Even as an eight seed, get them in the playoffs and that’s a scary team.”
Leonard’s choice might have been surprising considering he became the first Finals MVP to ever leave the team he had just won the Larry O’Brien Trophy with and because he picked L.A.’s other NBA franchise, but many saw it coming.
“The Clippers tracked him like a dog all year long,” said one Eastern Conference front office member.
To get George, one exec admitted the Clippers gave up a “butt ton” of assets, but felt like it was all worth it. “You have Kawhi on one wing and PG on the other, that defensive prowess is off the charts,” he added.
There was a difference in opinion about Oklahoma City’s role in the deal, however. Some felt like Thunder GM Sam Presti had to do the trade, underscoring the overwhelming amount of assets the Clippers were forking over to break up a team that was over the cap and only won a single playoff game this spring. But others felt like the Thunder could have put its foot down to enforce the league’s often-overlooked tampering standards.
With the Clippers so invested in Leonard, was it just a player trying to convince another player to come play with him — which is allowed — or was the force of a franchise behind it?
“If it wasn’t such a big haul,” one Western Conference GM suggested, “then OKC would have made an issue of it.” With yet another superstar demanding a trade before his contract was through, the GM suggested that such demands could lead to owners pursuing non-guaranteed contracts for players down the line.
— Dave McMenamin
That’s not quite all, folks
Anthony Davis spent a solid 20 minutes in the middle of a hotel lobby on Friday afternoon talking to New Orleans Pelicans coaches and staffers in an unexpected meetup prior to his former team’s first summer league game. But as he started to walk away, Davis realized his former head coach, Alvin Gentry, had made his way up near the group to come over and say hello. Davis took a few steps the other direction while his former colleagues chuckled. After a couple more steps, Davis turned around with a smile on his face and gave his old coach a big hug. It was another intriguing moment in an afternoon full of them for both Davis and the Pelicans as the former face of the franchise met the new face of New Orleans basketball when Zion Williamson made his way off the elevator and into the lobby a few minutes later.
“He just can’t stay away,” one Pelicans staffer said of Davis, with a hint of sarcasm.
The reality, as Gentry points out after spending a couple minutes with Davis, is that the 26-year-old center is still well-liked by many throughout the organization. Davis clearly still has a soft spot for the people he used to work with as he took pictures with a few, including Pelicans summer league coach and former Maryland star Greivis Vasquez. Davis gave Williamson a handshake and a hug on his way out to the team bus for his first professional game — a game as Gentry noted earlier, that had fans paying upward of $500 outside the Thomas and Mack Center for good seats to see Williamson’s debut.
— Nick Friedell
Pelicans lead peer review of impressive offseasons
The Pelicans’ offseason drew consensus appeal as one of the best for any team this year in conversations with a variety of team employees on the first day of NBA summer league action in Las Vegas. The first couple of months on the job for new Pelicans executive VP of basketball operations David Griffin drew rave reviews, even among those discounting the lottery luck that landed New Orleans Zion Williamson.
Naturally, that started with the package the Pelicans were able to get for star Anthony Davis, including three first-round picks — to which New Orleans was able to add a fourth by trading down from fourth to eighth in this year’s draft. No. 8 pick Jaxson Hayes was a popular selection in the eyes of members of other front offices, while the two-year, $26.5 million the Pelicans gave JJ Redick was lauded as one of the summer’s best.
The Memphis Grizzlies were also a popular choice, having added three first-round picks between their deal sending Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz and one to take back Andre Iguodala‘s salary. So too were the Jazz, who added shooting to their defensive-minded team with Conley and free agent Bojan Bogdanovic. Surprisingly absent from the conversation: the Brooklyn Nets, possibly because their marquee additions in free agency (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) made them too obvious a choice.
— Kevin Pelton
Making sense of Nikola Mirotic’s return to Europe
The surprising decision of Nikola Mirotic to turn down a reported three-year, $45 million contract offer from the Utah Jazz led to interesting conversations in Las Vegas, with most wondering whether this move could turn into something of a trend, or is simply a one-time occurrence unlikely to happen again. The stretch 4 was projected to have a starting salary of $12 to $14 million on a long-term deal if he signed with an NBA team, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
The initial rumors on the size of Mirotic’s deal were quickly debunked by sources with knowledge of the situation. Mirotic reportedly will sign for something much closer to $6 million a year gross (far less than the NBA mid-level exception, and around a third of what he was offered in the NBA after accounting for taxes). Even that relatively minor amount by NBA standards is something virtually no club in Europe, including the richest ones such as Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow, has shown any ability or interest in offering other players.
It may be a while before we encounter another player willing to sacrifice such a large amount of money, dissatisfied with his role in the NBA, hungry to get back to being the focal point of an offense and homesick enough to accelerate a return to the country where he spent his formative years — all factors that went into Mirotic’s move, according to sources.
In short, don’t expect this to become a trend with players of Mirotic’s caliber, as the financial gap between Europe and the NBA only seems to be widening, not closing.
— Jonathan Givony
The draft day trade holding pattern continues
Just like fans, NBA executives were anxious for Kawhi Leonard to announce where he will be playing next season. For execs, though, it wasn’t just about curiosity — their team’s summer league roster make up depended on it.
Take New Orleans, for example. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes are both healthy, but didn’t play in the Pelicans’ debut against the New York Knicks. Why? Because technically they aren’t on New Orleans’ roster until the Lakers, Pelicans and Hawks complete trade calls with the league office.
The Lakers no longer would’ve had the necessary cap space to sign a maximum-level player — like Leonard — if the draft-day transaction happened first. Some team officials mused that the NBA League Office should work to coordinate the moratorium period with the beginning of summer league. De’Andre Hunter, whose trade to the Hawks was also pending, waited until Sunday to make his pro debut after the Friday-night blockbuster deal resolved the Lakers’ waiting game.
— Malika Andrews