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George, Westbrook an intriguing combo; where will Carmelo land?

Observations from the opening weekend of NBA free agency

Paul George is going where?

Hours before the arrival of NBA free agency, NBA fans had to question what they heard when word got out June 30 that the Indiana Pacers had traded George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for guard Victor Oladipo and forward Domantas Sabonis. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards were interested in acquiring George, whose preferred destination is the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers had an outside-the-box idea in sending George to the Thunder to play alongside 2017 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook.

With the stunning George news leading the way, the following are The Undefeated’s observations on the most interesting developments from the opening weekend of free agency.

PG to OKC?

The Thunder rolled the dice, trading quality talent in Oladipo and Sabonis to acquire one of the NBA’s top players in George, who is expected to opt out of his contract to become a free agent in 2018. There may not be a better 1-2 punch in the NBA next season than Westbrook-George. It will be interesting to see how the two coexist, as Westbrook took an NBA-high 24 shots per game last season while George ranked 18th with 18 per game.

The Thunder hope that Westbrook agrees to a lucrative contract extension before the season and that George eventually follows suit, but the latter appears to be a long shot. There probably needs to be a run to at least the Western Conference finals to persuade George to sign with the Thunder long term. Even with Westbrook by his side, it’s hard to see the four-time All-Star passing on joining the Lakers as a free agent next year. Just imagine if the Lakers also figure out a way to offer a free-agent deal to the NBA’s biggest superstar in LeBron James next summer to join George and promising youngsters Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram in Los Angeles.

George hasn’t mentioned anything publicly about the Thunder other than posting a picture of himself and Westbrook on Instagram. George’s news conference in Oklahoma City will be must-see TV when it happens. And if things go poorly or don’t appear optimistic in the long term for George with the Thunder, general manager Sam Presti still has the option of dealing him before the trade deadline.

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Will Melo say hello to Rockets or Cavs?

Even with the recent departure of Phil Jackson from the New York Knicks, All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony could be playing elsewhere next season. ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported early Monday morning that Anthony would waive his no-trade clause to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers or Houston Rockets. The Knicks have also made it known that they remain hopeful they can trade Anthony, ESPN.com’s Ian Begley has reported.

Anthony could join a close friend in either move: James with the Cavaliers or Chris Paul with the Rockets. While financially a deal including Rockets forward Ryan Anderson could work for Anthony, Begley has previously reported that the Knicks aren’t interested in the sharpshooter. The Cavaliers have appeared open to trading forward Kevin Love. The Knicks sans Jackson are currently being run by experienced general manager Steve Mills, who has a solid relationship with Anthony. Anthony has two years and $54 million guaranteed left on his contract, plus a trade kicker that could pay him an additional $8.1 million.

Rockets blasting off

The Rockets shook up the NBA world by acquiring Paul last week to share the backcourt with fellow All-Star guard James Harden. The big question is how will one of the NBA’s greatest point guards share the ball with the Rockets’ current star point guard? The good news for the Rockets is Paul will be happy playing off the ball much more, a source told The Undefeated. The Rockets could have a scary offense with Paul and Harden sharing point guard duties in 2017 NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni’s free-flowing offense.

According to Wojnarowski, the Rockets finally agreed to terms to re-sign center Nene to a three-year, $11 million deal after an initial contract snag that was due to his age. One Rockets source told The Undefeated that it was “critical” to the franchise to have Nene coming off the bench again this season. Houston also landed one of the NBA’s toughest defenders by agreeing to terms with free-agent forward P.J. Tucker. Keep in mind that 2017 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon and notable 3-point shooter Anderson are on the roster. While an attempt to land George has sailed, keep an eye on whether the Rockets can steal Anthony away via trade. The Rockets appear to have surpassed the San Antonio Spurs as the biggest Western Conference threat to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors with or without the addition of Anthony. With Anthony, Houston becomes an even more serious challenger to the champs.

Will Hayward stay?

The Utah Jazz have a franchise-altering meeting in San Diego on Monday with their All-Star free-agent forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward has visited with the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics, who are coached by Brad Stevens, his former college coach. Jazz coach Quin Snyder, president Steve Starks, general manager Dennis Lindsey and standout center Rudy Gobert are expected to be in the meeting. It would be smart for the Jazz to also bring recently re-signed free-agent guard Joe Ingles and assistant coach Johnnie Bryant, who are the closest people to Hayward in the organization.

Hayward is the face of a Jazz franchise that is growing into a Western power with another star in Gobert. The Jazz made a smart move by acquiring veteran point guard Ricky Rubio before the meeting. Big-market Boston has the most upside right now, but it is All-Star Isaiah Thomas’ team. Don’t sleep on persuasive team president Pat Riley in big-market Miami. But Hayward hails from small-town Brownsburg, Indiana, and doesn’t appear to be a big-city guy.

Utah can sign Hayward to a max contract of five years, $172.4 million. Boston and Miami can offer four years, $127.8 million.

 

Will the Clippers still sail?

With Paul gone, Blake Griffin returned to being the main star for the Clippers after agreeing to a five-year, $173 million maximum deal. The Clippers, however, have lost their starting backcourt in Paul and J.J. Redick, who agreed to a one-year deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Clippers’ roster includes standout center DeAndre Jordan and three hot scorers in Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and newcomer Lou Williams. The Clippers also landed three players in the Paul trade who should be in their rotation: possible starting point guard Patrick Beverley, forward Sam Dekker and big man Montrezl Harrell.

Time will tell how much Paul’s departure truly hurts the Clippers. They still have the ability to create salary cap space to get a quality free agent. Free-agent forward Rudy Gay is meeting with two teams on Monday, one of which is the Clippers, sources told The Undefeated. With the Western Conference being so tough, the Clippers will need a healthy Griffin and a quick-jelling team of newcomers if they hope to avoid snapping their streak of six straight playoff appearances. ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne has reported that a wealthier Griffin is expected to be back from his toe injury by season’s start.

Timberwolves are howling

Say hello to the NBA’s new power, the Minnesota Timberwolves. Yes, the Wolves. Kudos to president and coach Tom Thibodeau for acquiring All-Star guard Jimmy Butler via trade and landing free-agent commitments from point guard Jeff Teague and big man Taj Gibson. With budding superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, All-Star-caliber forward Andrew Wiggins and underrated center Gorgui Dieng on the roster, expect Minnesota to not only make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 but also to make some noise.

The Wolves are the new young darlings of the NBA with their star trio of Towns, Butler and Wiggins. Teague will have a tough job making sure all three are happy with their touches. Thibodeau, however, has the respect and coaching talent to make it all jell. The late Wolves fan Prince would be proud.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.