Notebook: Thunder GM sees benefit of having his players at Olympics
Thunder GM Sam Presti likes that his four best players are competing in London
The free-agent market has slowed to a trickle as teams warily eye the luxury tax
A good offseason has put the Warriors in position to contend for the playoffs
Sam Presti is forever the diplomat, meaning the record will show that he was neutral on the issue of the Olympics and whether players of all ages should compete in men's basketball.
But as the Oklahoma City general manager discussed his players' experiences in London, it was hard to miss the enthusiasm in his voice about five-ring life as we know it. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden competing for Team USA and Serge Ibaka playing for Spain, Presti -- who is headed that way this week to watch the quartet in person and squeeze in some international scouting -- spoke glowingly about the fringe benefits of having pros play internationally.
Presti is a fascinating case study for the issue of NBA participation at the Games because his four best players are all either 22 or 23 and began training with their respective countries about two weeks after the Thunder lost the NBA Finals to the Heat on June 21. But if David Stern has his way, this would be the end of the Olympic road for this Thunder group.
The commissioner is reportedly pushing for basketball to follow the soccer model of making the Olympics a 23-and-under tournament while having all NBA players eligible to compete in a basketball World Cup, a potential NBA- and FIBA-run event that would give Stern's league far more authority and, of course, the financial rewards absent in the current format. Dallas' Mark Cuban is one owner who has made his feelings known that NBA teams are simply subsidizing the Olympics without receiving any control or profit.
Nonetheless, Presti had only good things to say on Saturday about the status quo.
"I think it's really helpful for them to play under different circumstances; it only rounds them out as players and makes them better," said Presti, who also saw Durant and Westbrook win gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. "What we observed from the World Championship was just the mental endurance that it takes to go through an international competition and the training camp that leads up to it in medal-round play just to get there.
"Just the level of mental endurance that Kevin and Russell have been exposed to and conditioned themselves to, I think has really helped us in our playoff series. That's a real benefit. I think Serge's experiences with the national team, again just being in different situations and adjusting to different styles of play, I only makes him a more well-rounded player. And James now is also getting that level of experience. I really feel like we've benefited from all of the exposures that the players have been given, and I think they're all very grateful for the opportunity too. It's fun to watch them in these situations."
Presti made it clear that he wanted to learn more about the 23-and-under debate before forming his opinion.
"There's probably arguments to be made on both sides of the equation, but we've been pleased with the experiences the guys have had, the opportunities they've been given," he said. "But I think we have to focus on the here and now, and support them, and then deal with whatever those discussions are going to be down the line."
While Presti's main motivation in traveling to London is to show support for his players, he'll have his eyes elsewhere as well.
"The game is always evolving," he said. "Players are coming from all over the world, so maintaining some connection with players, style of play, trends within the game, coaches and techniques that they're experimenting with [is beneficial]. What makes the game great is that there are so many different people pushing it in so many different ways."
After surviving a 99-94 scare from Lithuania on Saturday, Team USA (4-0) was to face Argentina on Monday in its final preliminary game. Spain (3-1) fell to Russia 77-74 on Saturday in what was its first loss to a non-American team at the Olympics since 2000. The Spaniards were to meet Brazil (3-1) on Monday to complete group play.
When the free agency dust completely settles later this summer, it will be revealing to review the period in its entirety. After a barrage of early spending, teams have become increasingly cautious while growing more reluctant than ever to hand out overly generous deals to role players. Indeed, the ripple effect of the league's more punitive luxury tax that starts in 2013-14 is being felt by the large number of free agents who are still looking for work.
It's worth noting that two of the men who fought during labor negotiations to avoid this pinching of the middle class -- National Basketball Players Association president Derek Fisher and vice president Maurice Evans -- remain unemployed. They're among the many players playing a waiting game with teams that seem determined to fill out rosters with minimum salary deals, like the one NBPA vice president Roger Mason signed with New Orleans last week.
"Do I think that in the new CBA that you're going to see a greater number of minimum wage players? Yes, there's no doubt about it," agent Marc Cornstein said. "I think you're already seeing that and I think it's a trend that will probably continue. More shorter deals and minimum deals."
Beginning in 2013-14, teams that are less than $5 million over the luxury-tax threshold (which isn't yet known for that year but will likely be around $70 million) will pay $1.50 for every dollar they surpass the tax; teams that exceed the tax by $5 million to $10 million will pay $1.75; teams that are $10 million to $15 million over will pay $2.50; and teams that are $15 million to $20 million over will pay $3.25, with subsequent 50-cent increases for each additional $5 million. And should a team stay in the tax for four out of five seasons, those rates increase by a dollar in each respective category.
One of Cornstein's available clients, center Darko Milicic, is experiencing a different kind of luxury at the moment. Because he was amnestied by Minnesota recently, he will be paid the nearly $7 million in guaranteed money left on his old deal before eventually signing a new one.
Kenyon Martin, meanwhile, isn't so lucky. The 12-year veteran was a key reserve for the Clippers, his impact going way beyond his marginal numbers (5.2 points, 4.3 rebounds) for a team that reached the second round of the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. But sources said the 34-year-old power forward is holding up this later stage of the hiring process for frontcourt free agents, with the Lakers and the Nets among the teams he's considering and negotiation leverage seemingly gone because so many of his colleagues seem willing to take minimum deals.
Golden State was interested in Martin before last week signing power forward Carl Landry to a two-year, $8 million deal that, by comparison, looks lucrative. Veterans of varying pedigrees like Leandro Barbosa, Jermaine O'Neal, Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus, Josh Howard, Michael Redd, Louis Amundson, Joel Przybilla and Anthony Tolliver are among the players waiting longer than normal for a job. Przybilla was expected to pick between Milwaukee, Portland and Dallas over the weekend, according to a source close to him, but there's no word just yet.
Agent Mark Bartelstein, who represents a lot of the league's middle-class players, is navigating this changed landscape but refuted the notion that the money is all gone at this point.
"I think that the new system, obviously, has made things tougher in some ways," said Bartelstein, who represents Landry and also recently negotiated a two-year, $8 million deal for restricted free agent small forward Brandon Rush with Golden State. "The tax is more punitive and that gives certain teams more pause to do deals, but if you want a player bad enough, then you do it.
"You know, a year ago the Lakers wouldn't use their trade exception [acquired in the Lamar-Odom trade with Dallas] to sign anybody, and this year they decided to use it on Steve Nash. So if there's someone that they like enough, then they'll use it. It depends how much that owner wants to win and how valuable that player is to help that team win.
"I think especially this year with the Olympics, a lot of people have gone to London, and I think you'll see a lot more activity toward the end of August."
Last June, after being hired as Golden State coach, Mark Jackson predicted that the franchise would make the playoffs for only the second time in 18 seasons. But Jackson proved to be way off base when the Warriors finished 23-43 and 13 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
This offseason, however, the Warriors' brass -- from owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber on down to consultant Jerry West, general manager Bob Myers and Jackson -- has been united in being guarded about publicly assessing the team's prospects.
First up, the Logo: "I don't think you ever promise anything, but the one thing I think is I know we have better players," West told me in Las Vegas recently. "Hopefully it will translate into good fortune for our fans."
Then last Wednesday, it was Myers being asked if Golden State officials would make an annual habit out of forecasting a postseason berth.
"I think we can fight for a playoff spot, but promising anything is counterintuitive and not productive," he said on a conference call with reporters. "But I do think we made progress. We're moving in the right direction."
Jackson set the right (and righted) tone early, back in mid-April, when he was asked by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area's Matt Steinmetz if his team -- which looked much different than it does now -- would make the playoffs.
"Growing and maturing," he responded. "No comment."
The funny part, of course, is that no one would blame the Warriors if they were predicting the playoffs this time around. Wherever they finish, my colleague Zach Lowe got it right when he included the Warriors on a list of offseason winners. Now, the question is whether they can stay healthy.
Andrew Bogut, the team's centerpiece after he was acquired from Milwaukee in mid-March, is expected to be ready for training camp and his eventual Warriors debut after having arthroscopic surgery on his fractured left ankle in late April. The 27-year-old center has missed an average of 25 games in the last six seasons after playing all 82 as a rookie. Point guard Stephen Curry missed most of last season with his own ankle problems, playing just 26 games.
Still, the Warriors have far more depth than before after the re-signing of Rush and the additions of North Carolina small forward Harrison Barnes, Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli and Michigan State forward Draymond Green through the draft, steady reserve point guard Jarrett Jack in a three-way trade with New Orleans and Philadelphia and Landry in free agency. Add then-rookie guard Klay Thompson's late-season emergence as Monta Ellis' replacement, and you can start to see how Golden State might sneak into the playoff picture.
Power forward David Lee, who is entering his third season with the Warriors after receiving a six-year, $80 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Knicks, wasn't afraid to predict big things.
"I think that this is a club that needs to make the playoffs this year," said Lee, who averaged 20.1 points and 9.6 rebounds last season. "If you look at where this team was last year with the roster and where we are this year, I think we've made great improvements and we're starting to get depth at every position now. We have a starting five that can compete with just about anybody and now we're getting the depth to back it up and be a deep team with the way we want to play. I'm very excited."
With Jackson entering the second of three guaranteed years on his contract, the onus will be on him to forge progress -- even if he's not making any promises.
"Our whole basketball operations, from ownership, myself and our whole group, worked very hard to give [the coaching staff] something to work with," Myers said. "I'm not sure we did last year, to be frank.
"After the Landry signing, I called [Jackson] and said, 'I think you've got something to work with.' ... I don't think he's running from that challenge. I think he's embracing it and saying, 'Yeah, I do,' and it's up to them to go forward with this group."
Predictably, the always-cagey Presti didn't reveal anything regarding possible contract extensions for Harden and Ibaka, two soon-to-be fourth-year players who would become restricted free agents next summer if they don't agree to new deals by Oct. 31. But in Harden's case, the Sixth Man Award winner was confident his future would be with the Thunder when we spoke at Team USA's Las Vegas training camp in early July.
"I'm pretty, a hundred percent, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be in Oklahoma City," Harden said with a slight stutter. "I'll let my agent and Mr. Presti and [Thunder owner Clay] Bennett discuss all that, so I'll let them handle that and stay out of it for right now and worry about the USA Olympics."
When asked if he was at all enamored with the idea of being a more featured player elsewhere, Harden said, "I love winning. We have some great guys over here, something special, something I don't think any other team in the NBA has - young guys who got drafted basically together, year after year after year. We've got something special, so I'm focused on what we have and trying to win a championship with these guys."
Durant, who is well aware that the max deals given to him and Westbrook will make it extremely difficult to keep Harden and Ibaka, was confident as well but acknowledged that it would be tough for Presti to pull it off.
"I'm positive that it'll happen," Durant said regarding Harden. "Like you say, you never know in this league. You never know. All I can do is hope for the best, but James wants to be here. We want him here, and Serge the same way. So we'll see. I don't have anything to do with it. I just play ball."