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  1. “This insurance had better cover white shirts on windshields.” It’s time to make some big changes! Yes, I am talking to you, State Farm. Listen, the whole Cliff Paul thing was cute for a minute there. But it is 2020, and nobody is taking Chris Paul’s straight-man “comedy” routine and laughing straight to your friendly neighborhood insurance agent’s office. The bits you cook up for CP3 are funny. Face it, though, it’s the deer rampaging around garages, the mascot firing off T-shirt cannons in living rooms, the guy wearing khakis, the geckos, woodchucks and camels that elicit hearty guffaws in insurance TV spots. Anyone in or around the National Basketball Association can attest, Christopher is not, and has never been, innately “funny.” Not unless junk-punch gags make you snort a giggle. (I do not recommend laughter anytime Steven Adams is around). You think the tykes at Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, if they really were given the choice, would have insisted upon Chris Paul to be the NBA star who hosts and reads one-liners off a teleprompter? In 2018? Get real. The kids would rather just let the green slime run the show. Everybody Tolerates Chris. This was once a young star who steered his way out of the Deep South to get himself to L.A., although not quite in the way he envisioned. Once there, he used his newfound Hollywood connections, his union prez pull after upending Derek Fisher, and the still-spry and legit-funny pair of Blake Griffin and De’Andre Jordan to secure himself some TV bags. Including an insurance ad where the sweater-clad alter-ego became more famous than the player himself. These days, he’s more renowned for ratting on opponents when they’re supposed to have their shirts tucked in. He’s The Feds at this stage of his career. Seriously, State Farm, you’re asking a guy who’s known for not minding his own business to make you some. What consumer would trust this guy to be Like A Good Neighbor? CP3’s a long way removed from the nine consecutive years when he was a surefire All-Star. At least for now, he’s a long way removed, geographically, from the bright lights of Hollywood, too. The Clippers drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in 2018 and let Paul walk. Even Houston has since passed him up for an “upgrade” in the form of Russell Westbrook. Now, as the Atlanta Hawks come to Oklahoma City (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), Paul is way out here in prairie land, grooming Gilgeous-Alexander for Sam Presti’s cost-cutting Thunder. Reaching age 35 this spring, he’s well-suited for a future selling us all term life insurance and enhancement pills. But it’s time to give Paul the heave-ho, State Farm, and turn to a fresher, fan-friendly face. Like who? So glad you asked. (Not you, Baze. So sorry.) You’ve spent truckloads of dinero to swipe Philips’ name off a swanky, newly renovated NBA arena. Why not shift your TV ad campaigns to the fella who casually launches 35-foot bombs from your logo on Atlanta’s arena floor, to the growing joy of millions of insurance-starved fans? Unlike your current rep, Trae Young’s got charm and charisma for days. Your rep sneers, mocks refs and fake-laughs, while this kid’s biggest crime is flexing with a smile. His enthusiasm is infectious. Just witness the joy “T.Y. Thrill-ton” effused while rocking his red velvet smoking jacket on the sideline, cheering young Brandon Goodwin on to victory in Wednesday night’s stunning late-game thriller over a squad that coincidentally kicked Mr. Paul to the curb. Trae’s already making insurance out of his two-way contractor. You want to appeal to Middle America? Chris is just in Sooner Country for a minute or two, but Trae has Oklahoma crimson ‘n cream in his veins. Further, peep the newest All-American-born All-Star starter’s bubbly persona daily on social media accounts. Never types a thing that requires an “I wuz hacked!” excuse. Imagine: “Another Day, Another Opportunity (100),” to protect your home and auto from bears! Oh, and the man CAN ham it up, on the spot. Have you not yet seen him and John Collins reminding us all why Landmark DCJ is The Georgia Giant? Meanwhile, you’re out here trying to sell with an Abbott, when you really need to bring a Costello to the table. I promise you, State Farm, this is not somebody you want to risk losing to Aflac. You’d better get your people in touch with Trae’s people and lock him down, before Flo hits him with a lab coat and a name tag. How long Paul sticks around OKC depends on what team exec Sam Presti has up his sleeve. A year ago, the Thunder were trying to sustain their rep as The Small Market Club That Could. That could spend big, at least, if not win big, having thrown money at Paul George and Westbrook to back up their commitment to eventual excellence. But after PG requested to buddy up with Kawhi Leonard in La-La-Land, it was Presto-chango time for Sam, whose organization could face a repeater tax bill this season and next, right as they try kickstarting their rebuild. The plan was to find Paul a new NBA landing spot before this season began. But then, a funny thing happened, and not because some State Farm agent was up in the middle of the night wearing khakis. Paul professed a commitment to stay and mentor SGA (team-high 19.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG), the 6-foot-5 stringbean who starts alongside him. Not only that, but CP3 has taken Dennis Schröder, about as big an afterthought as a flashy young player with funny hair could be in this league, under his wing. Now Schröder, once a one-trick driving pony as a future All-Star hopeful with the Hawks, is mastering the dark arts of on-ball defense, ranking 4th in Defensive RPM among NBA starter/rotation PGs (bottom-ten w/ OKC last year, 6th-worst w/ ATL in 2017-18). Further, the Menace is hitting money jumpshots to win games, as he did from 20 feet out with the 30th and 31st point of his barrage in Orlando (10-for-14 2FGs, 3-for-4 3FGs, 9 assists in 33 bench minutes) to dust off the Magic on Wednesday. I’m comfortable in asserting that this isn’t Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s doing. You can credit assistants an ex-Hawks Mo Cheeks and Mike Wilks, if you must. But it’s the egging from Paul that’s getting through to Dennis and Shai’s noggins. Westbrook, with his triple-double hunts, gave this team an edge every night. But Paul, effectively the head coach for the moment, has spread that vim and vigor across the whole rotation, and it particularly shows up in the second halves. As noted by Forbes SportsMoney’s Nick Crain this week, CP3 leads the league with 110 clutch-time points, and Gilgeous-Alexander (+70 clutch plus/minus) and Schröder (NBA-best +71 clutch plus/minus) aren’t all that far behind. OKC has been in as many as 31 clutch scenarios all year and have thrived in nearly all of them. SGA’s ranginess on defense (team-high 12 rebounds, all defensive, @ ORL) allows Donovan to go small-ball at winning time, plugging sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari at power forward alongside Adams (questionable, ankle; Nerlens Noel has been starting in his place) and featuring three guards under 185 pounds (OKC’s top-3 minute-leaders) to ramp up the pressure. In recent games, OKC has been conveniently starting two-way rookie Lugie Dort at the 2-spot, because how this team finishes is proving to be far more important than how they start. The Thunder have become true League Pass darlings with one thrilling comeback surge after another. Coming back from down 26 to beat the Bulls in mid-December, down 24 just two nights later to get past Memphis. Down 18 four days after that (don’t remind Doc) to beat LA in George’s return to OKC, behind 32 points by former Clipper SGA. Just this week, in Westbrook’s Houston, climbing out from a 17-point third-quarter hole to ground the Rockets. That’s just scratching the surface of what has been a fun ride for Thunder fans, watching the team slide into a cozy 7-seed spot (26-19, winners of 11 of past 15 and 3 straight) with a reasonable shot at sneaking up to 5th in the West soon with some favorable games (vs. ATL, CLE, DET; at MIN, SAC, PHX) on the docket. Unfortunately, this is a campaign, and a roster, that might look very different a couple weeks from now. “Especially as it heads toward a rebuild,” Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman recently suggested, “the Thunder won’t jeopardize its long-term plan for a short-term payoff.” Presti has slashed lots of salary weight to this point, going from tens of millions over the luxury tax level last spring to hardly a million over the top as the calendar turns toward February and the looming trade deadline. I’d argue, what’s the rush? As far as my Hawks are concerned, we don’t need to see the Thunder back in the playoffs until 2022, when the lottery-protected pick for Menace ‘n Moose comes due. But by this summer, surely there’ll be a taker for Paul’s two years and $85 million remaining (assuming he opts in for 2021-22), Adams’ $27.5 million expiring deal for next season, and certainly Schröder’s $15.5 million, now that he’s becoming a hot commodity. Gallinari’s $22.6 million comes off the books after this season ends. A simpler dealing away of Noel (set loose the Moose!), Justin Patton, or Slamidou Diallo could be more than enough to evade the repeater tax. Even so, such a penalty under the multiplier won’t be as ginormous as the Thunder once budgeted. Instead of a drastic, destabilizing February teardown, I’d rather reward the OKC fans by running with this Thunder core into the playoffs, formally hand the leadership keys to Gilgeous-Alexander, then make the tougher player-personnel decisions in June and July. Perhaps some thunderous deals are in the works, and if so, I conjecture it’s to have a trial run, for Presti to see if Donovan and this staff are the right folks to coach up a roster from the ground floor. For now, though, the Thunder are modeling quite well what a playoff-steeled veteran from Wake Forest, a possible supernova from the 2018 Draft on the rise, and a cat-quick player who’s not chopped liver, could look like while staffing the point guard position on the depth chart. It’s looking like the Hawks have been paying attention. It is kind of nice to see Atlanta (11-34) cut their two most gaping roster flaws in half. The re-arrival of Jeff Teague (8 assists, 1 TO vs. LAC) and the glorious breakout of Goodwin (17 fourth-quarter points, 3-for-4 3FGs vs. LAC) was a long time coming to address Atlanta’s dire backup situation behind Young (29.2 PPG, 8.6 PG, plus a sturdy 4.7 RPG). I’d even venture to suggest the Hawks checked off two out of three big boxes, if Wednesday’s lineup shift by coach Lloyd Pierce is an indication he’s no longer requiring De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish (minus-9.0 net points per 100 possessions as a two-man unit; 700 minutes together, second among Hawks tandems) to suffer their rookie lumps together. The third leg on the stool is a starting-caliber center capable of providing steady rim protection and pick-and-roll coverage, allowing John Collins (18.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 33-and-16 plus 3 steals vs. LAC; limited sample size, but NBA-best 0.36 PPP on roll-man defense) to become the productive double-double machine and defensive rover the beastly power forward is destined to become. Having Bruno Fernando and Alex Len (probable, continued back strain) available has been helpful, but the duo would be more valuable as reserves for a more competent contributor at the pivot. Noel (team-high 1.6 BPG in 18.8 MPG; minus-3.9 defended FG% differential; Collins’ minus-6.1 ranks 10th-best among NBA bigs, Damian Jones’ plus-7.2 the 3rd-worst), who himself just returned from ankle injury, might fit the bill if the soon-to-be 26-year-old can stay healthy, although it would likely take more than some future-year second-rounder for Hawks GM Travis Schlenk to pry him loose from Presti. In the meantime, having Teague back in a reserve role to spell Young (available, as per LP, after missing Wednesday’s game with a bruised thigh) will help Atlanta match up with OKC’s backcourt depth and strive to avoid yet another big first-half deficit. Kevin Huerter’s layup to give the Hawks an early 11-4 lead against the Clips could not be followed by another field goal until the final minute of the opening quarter. Amid that first-quarter funk, Montrezl Harrell entered the game with LA up 22-12 and went unimpeded, scoring 19 of the Clippers’ next 22 points as the visitors’ lead on Wednesday ballooned to 19. The Hawks showed great fight in storming back late to pull off the win, thanks primarily to Goodwin, but OKC (+10.8 4th-quarter Net Rating; Milwaukee is 2nd-best at +7.9) is not a team you want far ahead of you deep in the second half. Staying in front of OKC’s shooters and drivers, again avoiding fouls, will be a defensive priority for Atlanta. Among the biggest shifts for the post-Russ-era Thunder is their eagerness to get back on defense once shots go up. Last-year’s Thunder cluster amassed an NBA-high 12.6 O-Rebs per contest, ranking third in the league for O-Reb%. This year, even with Adams (3rd in NBA for O-Reb%) still flailing about, those numbers are down to NBA-lows of 8.3 O-Rebs per game and 19.6 O-Reb%. Keeping the opponent one-and-done in their halfcourt-heavy offense, while pushing the pace and finishing in transition, will be key for the Hawks to compete tonight, early and often. The Thunder (79.7 FT%, 6th in NBA) won’t give the Hawks the breaks Harrell and the Clippers offered up (14 missed FTs @ ATL) on Wednesday. It was wonderful to watch the Young household in Oklahoma, conveniently convening on Thursday evening, as Trae officially earned his first All-Star starting nod (Don’t think he earned it? Rather hand out Lifetime Achievement Awards? Cry about it!). You know what would also be nice to see? Some timely spots during All-Star weekend, as Chris Paul gracefully confers insurance agent Cole Perez to Trae Young as his final "assist." Better yet, just have Trae run into Agent Travis Young, his long-lost geeky twin. You know what, State Farm marketing department? Some of us don’t have an off-season. The NBA’s All-Star voting fans have spoken -- it’s time for a big change. Get to work! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. All play and no lottery-stud teammates makes Shai a dull boy. ~lw3
  3. ~lw3
  4. Hmmm, what head coach did Dennis learn THAT from? ~lw3
  5. At least Melo's gone. But Dennis and Nerlens are there now, so... ~lw3
  6. screeeeeeech... not so fast, my Phriends! ~lw3
  7. The OKC brass is definitely not lovin' it... That's gonna be McScary for him. OKC has enough depth at the 4 and 5 spots to not-miss him, at all. ~lw3
  8. Probably not the conspiracy Seattle fans were hoping for... but they'll take it! ~lw3
  9. This Scotty isn't beaming up right now. What about Presti, though? He's gotta be sitting over there like ~lw3
  10. Enes Kanter's recent play should ease the pain of another missing starter, but still. OUCH, OKC... ~lw3
  11. If OKC could just put one foot in front of the other... ~lw3
  12. The Basketball Jones you don't want to get. ~lw3
  13. His $1.25 million contract becomes fully guaranteed after September 1. Or, at least, it would have. Hopefully, the Sixers will spring for a couple first-class seats before springing Hasheem loose. ~lw3
  14. ~lw3
  15. If OKC had a White House, looks to me like it'd be right around the corner from Chateau Liggins... With a boost in minutes for Jeremy Lamb behind Sefolosha, plus vet Ryan Gomes coming back to play behind KD and Perry Jones at SF, Liggins is probably on the OKC roster bubble. ~lw3