Thunder U to Thunder Men: How the maturation of its star players helped the Oklahoma City Thunder make their coaching change

Oklahoma City Thunder vs San Antonio Spurs

Let’s hark back to a time when we were all young. Let’s examine our lives from 18-24 years of age. You have high school graduation, then either college or work (or both, or neither). You have significant others, one night stands, friends with benefits, friend zones, etc. It’s a time of exploration; a time to make mistakes. You only hope is that the mistakes made during this time period don’t affect you for the rest of your life. Usually, it’s good to have someone that is older and much wiser around you to support you during these times. Not necessarily someone that tells you that you are doing it wrong, but someone that allows you to figure it out on your own, while also giving their own nuggets of advice along the way.

Eventually, though, we all reach that fork in the road of life. Take one path, and you’ll eventually become the old guy that never fully matured and always harks back to his younger years (hello, ‘peaked in high school’ Rob Lowe). Take the other path, and you become the mature adult that you were destined to be. Along the way, the benefactor that helped you in your younger years, may not necessarily be the same person that helps you in your maturing years. Usually, the new benefactor is a more professional role model; someone that you try to emulate as you mature. This new benefactor is usually not as coddling as the old one, and almost always demands that results be brought to the table in order to keep the relationship going.

When the Oklahoma City Thunder fired Scott Brooks, they didn’t just get rid of their coach for the past 7 seasons. They got rid of their coddling, doting benefactor. Don’t get me wrong, though. Scott Brooks did many great things in his time in Oklahoma City. His style of coaching was necessary for a team that was just coming into its own. His ability to develop and culture young talent was/is tantamount to the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Take the ‘players coach’ persona away from the Thunder and replace it with a hardened disciplinarian, and you may have had a scenario where the players got tired of the demanding coach and either wanted out or loathed the thought of coming to practice everyday. It’s basically the reason Brooks replaced PJ Carlesimo as head coach seven seasons ago in the first place.

In the last two seasons we’ve seen the complete maturation of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both these players have gone from great players to bonafide MVP candidates (or winner as in the case of Durant). Durant has gone from just a great scorer to a great all-around player, while Westbrook has gone from questionable point guard to something entirely different that has never been seen from the floor general position. While these two players will continue to add facets to their games as they mature, they’ve essentially reached their point of maturation.

durant westbrook thunder

While many will look at the last two injury plagued seasons as cursed, it has in fact been a great learning tool for both Durant and Westbrook. Their dependency on each other was shucked out the window in the last two years. In its stead, both players were forced to figure things out on their own. Durant went from all-world scorer to all-world all-around player after Westbrook sat out much of the 2013-14 season with various knee ailments. Durant’s scoring and rebounding numbers remained consistent, but his assist numbers went up to 5.5 per game. Based on these numbers and the fact that the Thunder remained atop the Western Conference (2nd, behind the San Antonio Spurs), Durant went on to win the MVP award last season.

Fast forward to this season, when the onus of carrying the Thunder fell on Westbrook as Durant recovered from a broken foot most of the season. Always vilified as being a shoot-first point guard, Westbrook was finally able to balance both scoring and assisting to finish with one of the greatest statistical seasons on record. His numbers in February and March have become things of legend. The media finally began to accept Westbrook for what he was: something they had never seen before. Westbrook’s season will likely not end an MVP award, as the Thunder failed to make the playoffs, but the full maturation of Westbrook has been a beautiful thing to watch. His ability to run the Thunder offense and pick and choose where to go has been tantamount to his success this season. The chemistry Westbrook developed with Anthony Morrow and Enes Kanter in such a short period of time probably shows the full maturity of his game more than anything else.

It’s in this maturity that Thunder GM Sam Presti felt it was finally time to cut the umbilical cord to the doting, coddling coach. Too many times the Thunder hid from the fact that Brooks, while great as a communicator, lacked as an X’s and O’s coach. While the team was successful, it was in those critical in-game moments late in the playoffs where Brooks’ warts showed the most. Will new head coach Billy Donovan be able to overcome those deficiencies to take this team to the next level? That remains to be seen. But the players he will be inheriting in Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, will be finished products that will be ready to win. The worst thing that could have happened to Brooks was the complete maturation of Durant and Westbrook without the finality of a championship. Regardless of whether injuries were involved or not, this was a move Presti had to make to get this team to the next level.

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Posted in Random Thoughts

The Thunder hire Billy Donovan to be their new head coach

Billy Donovan I

Per league sources, the Oklahoma City Thunder have hired Billy Donovan from the University of Florida to be their new head coach. The team and Donovan agreed to a 5 year contract, with the terms yet to be disclosed. The hiring comes after the Thunder parted ways with long-time head coach Scott Brooks after the season.

Donovan coached at the University of Florida for 19 seasons, garnering two national championships (2006, 2007), four SEC titles, and three SEC Coach of the Year awards. With an impressive NBA player tree that includes names like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chandler Parsons, Mike Miller, and Bradley Beal, Donovan’s ability to coach NBA-ready players is second only to Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari. His coaching tree is starting to pick up steam, as young coaches like Shaka Smart, Donnie Jones, and Anthony Grant, who were previous assistants at Florida under Donovan, start to leave their marks in college basketball.

Donovan’s system is tailor made for the NBA. His pick and roll-heavy offense plays for the Thunder’s personnel. And the addition of Enes Kanter as an interior scorer should make this offense that much more dynamic. His defensive approach will also play well into the Thunder scheme of pressuring the ball and defending the paint. The Thunder will have more chances to transform defense into offense under Donovan’s coaching. Donovan is known for his great rapport with his players, but also for holding them accountable for their actions on the court. That’s one area where he and Scott Brooks will likely differ. Donovan’s system has slowly been making its way to Oklahoma City, as the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue, have a head coach (Mark Daigneault) that used to be an assistant under Donovan. In addition, the Thunder’s basketball information analyst, Oliver Winterbone, is a former video coordinator under Donovan, and likely helps out in the advanced metrics department.

Donovan comes into a situation many will deem as a dream and a possible nightmare. While the first job of many head coaches usually involves a struggling, rebuilding team, Donovan has been gifted with two of the best players in the world. The Thunder will enter next season with championship aspirations, as they have the last four seasons. But with Kevin Durant’s impending free agency in 2016, every misstep will reverberate even louder than it normally does. For a coach that has never coached in an NBA game, it will be tantamount that he know how to handle that pressure. Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Cleveland’s David Blatt faced similar pressures as first year head coaches heading into this season, and both have been successful. On the other hand, Derek Fisher has had a disastrous first season with the New York Knicks.

While its been reported that Thunder GM Sam Presti has not directly involved Durant or Russell Westbrook in the coaching search, that doesn’t mean the players have not done their homework. Durant stated that he spoke with several former Gator players and is, “generally positive” about the Thunder’s hiring of Donovan. While many will view this response as questionable (why wasn’t he fully positive about it?), one has to also take into account the loyalty Durant has for Brooks. A full endorsement would almost be like a disparaging comment against Brooks. Like any new relationship, this will take time. But I think this will work out fine. Presti has been scouting Donovan for years, and conversely, Donovan has likely been watching the progress of the Thunder from afar these last few seasons. This was not a decision made in haste. In fact, this was likely a decision that has been years in the making.

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Ten Possible Candidates for the Oklahoma City Thunder coaching vacancy

thunder brooks kalamian pack

For the first time in seven seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in search of a new head coach. Since their arrival in 2008, the Thunder have always had a head coach in place. PJ Carlesimo started as the head coach for the Thunder in 2008, but after beginning OKC’s inaugural season 1-13, Carlesimo was let go in favor of assistant coach Scott Brooks. Though he initially started with an interim tag, Brooks quickly shed that tag after finishing the last 50 games of that season with a 20-30 mark. In the next 6 seasons, Brooks led the Thunder to 1 Finals appearance and 3 Western Conference Finals appearances. He was awarded the 2010 NBA Coach of the Year award, and was the coach behind James Harden’s 2012 6th Man of the Year award and Kevin Durant’s 2014 MVP award. But as successful as he was in developing top-notch talent, he was just as lacking in a lot of the coaching aspect of coaching. His offense was very simplistic, but the coup de gras may have been is inability/stubbornness to change on the fly, in-game. With that in mind, the organization decided that Brooks had likely hit his glass ceiling with this team and parted ways with him.

No separation is ever without tension. But this one seems to be amicable on both sides. The Thunder, and Brooks, himself, did not want to go into this next season with the lame-duck status over their heads. With Durant’s impending free agency quickly approaching, any misstep or change in-season could be seen as a desperation move. The organization decided that if a change was going to be made, it had to be now, so that there is some consistency heading into the season. With that said, this becomes the first ever head coaching search in the history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. As soon as Brooks’ departure was announced, several names were dropped as potential candidates for the now vacant head coaching job. With Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka currently in tow, this is likely one of the more desirable jobs for a head coach. Here are 10 possible candidates for the Thunder’s head coach gig.

Internal Candidates

Rex Kalamian – Kalamian has been one of Brooks’ top assistants for the past 5 seasons. He has overseen the development of the Thunder’s players and has also been the coach of the Thunder’s summer league team the last 3 seasons, winning the Orlando Summer League in 2013. Kalamian has been an NBA coaching lifer, starting as scouting assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers in 1992, and moving onto to stints with the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Sacramento Kings, before settling into his current position with the Thunder. He appears to have a great rapport with the players and a hiring like this would lessen the blow of the coaching change.

Troy Weaver – The Thunder’s current vice president/assistant general manager also has an extensive coaching portfolio. He started by coaching AAU ball in the Washington D.C. area from about 1992-1996. He went on to be an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh, University of New Mexico, and then onto Syracuse University, where he is credited with recruiting Carmelo Anthony to the school. In 2004, he became the head scout for the Utah Jazz. Later he promoted to director of player personnel in 2007, and held that post through the end of the 2008 season. He was then hired by the Thunder in his current position, where he assists with roster building (NBA Draft preparation and free agency) and day to day basketball operations. Remember, the Spurs, whom the Thunder tend to emulate, once hired their general manager as their coach and went on to win 5 championships in a 16 year period.

College Coaches

Billy Donovan – The current University of Florida coach has a good relationship with Thunder GM Sam Presti, who hired two of Donovan’s assistants in the past year (Mark Daigneault as the coach of Oklahoma City’s Development League team and Oliver Winterbone as a basketball information analyst). Donovan currently boasts a 467-186 record at Florida, leading the Gators to consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007. He has been named SEC Coach of the Year in three of the last 5 seasons. He has a reputation as a great player developer and values depth on the offensive end and toughness on the defensive end.

billy donovan kevin ollie

 

Kevin Ollie – The current UCONN coach has a history with the Thunder that can still be felt today. Ollie played his final season in the NBA with the Thunder and was sited as the veteran that taught Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook how to be men in the NBA. Durant even notes him as being the purveyor of the current culture that is the Thunder. After retiring from the NBA in 2010, he went on to be an assistant coach under Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. After two seasons, he took over for Calhoun and went on to win the 2014 NCAA Championship. According to various media outlets, Ollie has removed his name from consideration for the Oklahoma City job.

Fred Hoiberg – The Iowa State coach is one of the hottest commodities in current coaching circles. His innovative, almost Spursian-like offense, made the Cyclones one of the top scoring teams in the NCAA’s throughout his coaching tenure. Players to come out of Hoiberg’s system are usually jack of all trades that are good at all aspects of the game, but not great at any one thing. In his 5 seasons in Ames, he has amassed a 115-56 record. He also has professional experience, as he worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office from 2007-2010.

NBA Coaches and Assistant Coaches

Tom Thibodeau – The current Chicago Bulls coach is known as one of the best defensive minds in the game. Before working in Chicago, he was one of the top assistants in the league from 1989-2010. The work he has done with the Bulls the past few injury-racked seasons has proven his worth as a coach that is able to excel, even in difficult situations. The Bulls’ coach has amassed a 255-139 record in his 5 seasons in Chicago. The knock on Thibodeau has always been the amount of time he plays his main players and his lack of player development/depth. That may come into play with the Thunder’s top players suffering from injuries in the past few seasons. Various media outlets have reported that Thibodeau may be on his way out in Chicago, regardless of where they finish this season.

Alvin Gentry – Gentry is currently the associate head coach for the Golden State Warriors, serving under head coach Steve Kerr. His “Spursian/Phoenix Suns 7 second or less hybrid” offense has worked wonders for the Warriors. Gentry is currently one of the highest paid assistants in the league. In his career, Gentry has gone 335-370 in previous stints with Miami, Detroit, the Clippers, and Phoenix.

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game Six

Rick Carlise – While there is nothing that points to Dallas letting go of Carlisle, his frustration over the Rajon Rondo situation may boil over in the offseason, especially if the Mavericks don’t get out of the first round. Carlisle will be heading into the final year of his contract next season. If the team or Carlisle don’t see eye to eye on the future direction of the team in the offseason, I could definitely see a Scott Brooks situation where Carlisle walks away from the final year of his contract to go to another team with a guaranteed long-term deal. Carlisle has amassed a 619-431 record in his 13 years of coaching with Detroit, Indiana, and Dallas. He won a championship with Dallas in 2011.

Spurs’ Assistant Coaches

Chip Engelland – The Spurs assistant is credited with honing the shots of many Spurs’ players. He is known as the top shooting specialist in the league, and has built his portfolio up as an assistant in the past decade around the league.  He has a reputation for developing a great rapport with his players and is routinely tasked with monitoring the Spurs’ players training/shooting regiments in the offseason.

Ettore Messina – Before being hired on by the Spurs as an assistant coach, Messina was the top European coach in basketball. He led two Euroleague teams (Virtus Bologna and CSKA Moscow) to two championship apiece and was twice named Euroleague Coach of Year in 2006 and 2008. Messina is revered in basketball circles as a great basketball mind, almost like a European Larry Brown. Messina’s coaching philosophy fits in line with the Spurs’ model of floor balance and ball movement. He loves to balance the floor to keep the defense moving, especially with post-ups. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition (and hopeful re-signing) of Enes Kanter, they now have an interior scorer that could completely balance the floor in a Messian-run offense.

Wild Cards

Jeff Van Gundy – Anytime a good coaching vacancy opens up, Jeff Van Gundy’s name is always brought up. The former Knicks’ and Rockets’ coach has been out of coaching for the past 8 years, and while he has never said that he is interested in coaching again, he’s never said he isn’t interested in coaching again. Van Gundy amassed a  430-318 record in his 11 seasons of coaching. With a nice broadcasting gig with ESPN and ABC, Van Gundy can wait for the right opportunity to get back into coaching. If both parties (the Thunder and Van Gundy) are interested, he could be possible candidate.

Coach-K

Mike Krzyzewski – Coach K is well on his way to being on the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball coaches. He just got done capturing his 5th NCAA championship this past season. For the past 10 seasons, he has been the head coach for USA Basketball, where he has coached Durant and Westbrook in international competitions. What if for a second, Coach K decides that there is nothing else he can accomplish in college basketball and would like to see what he could do in the NBA before it comes time for retirement. The Thunder vacancy would be the perfect opportunity of Coach K to pursue this.

The Thunder coaching vacancy is one that should generate plenty of interest. The opportunity to coach Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and possibly Kanter in their primes has to a dream for many coaches. As it stands right now, Donovan seems to be the front runner for the job. But if the Thunder still have not decided on a coach within the next two weeks, look for the Thunder to be leaning towards one of the coaches in the NBA circle.

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Posted in Offseason Beat, Random Thoughts

Oklahoma City Thunder part ways with head coach Scott Brooks

scott brooks durant thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder have parted ways with head coach Scott Brooks after an injury riddled 45-37 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in the last five seasons. It was nearly a week ago, during exit interviews, that the organization advised they would evaluate the head coaching position as they headed into the offseason. To that, Scott Brooks remarked, “I expect to be the coach next season,” when asked about it during his exit interview.

Scott Brooks took over as head coach for the Thunder one month into their inaugural season in Oklahoma City. At that point, the Thunder were 1-12 and looking like a team that may threaten the Philadelphia 76ers mark for futility in a season. With Brooks at the helm, the Thunder rebounded enough to salvage a 23-win season. The year after that, the upstart Thunder won 50 games and made the playoffs as an 8th seed and took the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to 6 games. Brooks was awarded the NBA Coach of the Year after that season. The next season, he took the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to eventual champions, the Dallas Mavericks. The next season, Brooks led the Thunder to the NBA Finals, where they lost in 5 games to the Miami Heat. The next years ended in disappointment as key players were lost to injury in the playoffs (Russell  Westbrook in 2013 and Serge Ibaka in 2014). This season, which started with championship aspirations, soon devolved into a struggle as the Thunder suffered injury after injury to key players, which saw Westbrook miss the first month with a broken hand, reigning MVP Kevin Durant play in only 27 games due to a broken foot, and Ibaka miss the last month of the season after knee surgery. The Thunder never gained any traction during the season, and eventually missed out on the playoffs to the New Orleans Pelicans in the final day of the season. Brooks finishes his tenure in Oklahoma City with a 338-207 (.620) record.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Thunder GM Sam Presti’s decision wasn’t a reflection of the job Brooks did this season, but more a long-term view for the franchise. While this may go down as a firing, a couple other teams have hinted at their interest for Brooks. The Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets are both rebuilding teams that are looking for a coach that has already been through and succeeded in that process.

The question now becomes, who’s the next Thunder head coach. Rumors are abound that University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan and UCONN head coach Kevin Ollie may be candidates for the opening. Both coaches have history with the Thunder. Two former Donovan assistants have been hired by the Thunder in the past few seasons, one of which is their current D-League coach, Mark Daigneault. Ollie, on the other hand, played for the Thunder in the 2009-10 season, and is credited by Durant, as being the person that established the current culture in Oklahoma City. Both have a championship pedigree, as Donovan has won 2 NCAA championships and Ollie has won one. Another candidate may be Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg, who has been successful in college, but also has front office experience with the Timberwolves in the past. Other candidates may be embattled Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau or Golden State Warriors assistant coach Alvin Gentry.

This next season may be a make or break season for the Thunder, as Durant approaches unrestricted free agency in 2016. Hire the wrong guy, and the organization can seal the deal on Durant not coming back. While Brooks may have had his faults, he always had the support of his superstars, and NBA, that carries a lot of weight.

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves preview (Game 82 of 82)

westbrook thunder hamilton wiggins twolves

  • When: Wednesday, 15 April 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN

And it comes down to this. Eighty one games could not decide the future for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Pelicans. It all comes down to the 82nd and final game of the regular season. Considering everything that has happened to the Thunder this season, it is quite fitting that fans of Oklahoma City will be on pins and needles until about 9:30 PM CST tonight. It’s a position that is unfamiliar for Thunder fans. Even in their inaugural playoff season, the 8th-seeded Thunder finished 7 games ahead of the 9th-seeded Houston Rockets. There was never any late season drama other than their annual battle with the Spurs for the top two positions in the West. This season, though, the Thunder not only need to win their final game, but also have to depend on another team to extend their season. It almost feels like the Thunder are playing two road games tonight: their game against the Timberwolves in Minnesota and the Pelicans, at home, against the Spurs. Just like in real life, its kind of scary having to depend on other people.

This is the fourth and final meeting of the season between these two Northwest division rivals. The Thunder won the first three meetings by an average of 13.7 points.

The Opponent

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves currently finding themselves with a 16-65 record, good for the worst record in the NBA. They are riding an 11-game losing streak heading into this game and claim the best chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the next draft if they lose tonight. The Tiimberwolves have stuck to the tanking script for the past month, sitting veterans with nagging injuries and playing their young players the majority of the minutes. The Wolves are definitely playing for the future, and feature two rookies that could have a significant impact in years to come. Reigning slam dunk champ Zach LaVine has been manning the point in the last 5 games, averaging an impressive 23.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.4 assists in that quintet of games. His back court mate, Kevin Martin, is shooting 38.7% from 3-point territory and averaging nearly 20 points a game. Kevin Martin is questionable for tonight’s game. If he misses, look for Chase Budinger to start in his place. On the wing, Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Wiggins is a developing franchise player in the Paul George/Tracy McGrady mold. Up front, rookie power forward Adreian Payne is just now starting to get significant minutes and Justin Hamilton is one of those “guys you sign to be a 3rd center off the bench” type guys. With so many guys out for this finale, the bench will feature Robbie Hummel, Lorenzo Brown, and Arinze Onuaku. Yeah, I don’t know too much about them either.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • PG – Zach LaVine
  • SG – Kevin Martin
  • SF – Andrew Wiggins
  • PF – Adreian Payne
  • C – Justin Hamilton

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Andre Roberson
  • PF – Enes Kanter
  • C – Steven Adams

Three Things

1. Front offices tank, not players – The Timberwolves’ front office has done a good job of positioning itself to continue in its rebuilding process. They’ll like get a top-3 draft pick in this next draft, and have given their young players ample time to develop this season. You know who doesn’t care about Minnesota’s position in the next draft? Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. I, mean, they care, because they are invested in the continued success of their organization. But tonight, they aren’t thinking about Jahlil Okafor or Karl Anthony Towns. Tonight, Wiggins is only thinking about dropping 35 on Andre Roberson. Tonight, LaVine is only worried about getting a triple double against Westbrook.

If the Thunder treat this game like the Timberwolves are the worst team in the league, they may find this to be a competitive game heading in to the 4th quarter. The last thing you want if you are the Thunder is to give the Wolves hope heading into the closing quarter of the game. Minnesota has played their last two opponents (New Orleans and Golden State) close, and will likely treat this game like it is their Game 7. This would be their ultimate “feather in the cap” if they are able to beat the Thunder and ruin their playoff chances.

2. Play through the jitters – Westbrook and Nick Collison have been here before. They’ve been in pressure-packed games that mean something. Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, and Andre Roberson, on the other hand, haven’t. The team with all the pressure on them will be Oklahoma City. How will those players react if their first couple shots don’t fall? How will they react if Westbrook’s first couple shots don’t fall? Let’s just hope that doesn’t come into play.

westbrook waiters kanter thunder

3. Win – The only thing Oklahoma City can control is what it does in Minnesota. They can’t control what the Spurs do. They can’t control how the Pelicans will play. All you can do is win and hope for the best.

Thunder Up!

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Posted in Thunder Pre-game Report

Sacramento Kings vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 79 of 82)

westbrook adams thunder evans kings

  • When: Friday, 10 April 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Four straight losses. And yet, the Oklahoma City Thunder still find themselves in the midst of being able to get the 8th and final playoff seed in the Western Conference. With the way this season has gone, it only seems apropos that it would come down to the final four games of the season for this team. The Thunder are currently tied in the standings with the New Orleans Pelicans, who hold the tie-breaker by virtue of winning the season series 3-1. With that said, the Thunder will need help from other teams to ensure that they do not finish with the same record as the Pelicans. The road ahead is a little bit tougher for the Pelicans, but that could also be a mirage as the two playoff teams they are facing in the next week may be resting their players. The Thunder on the other hand, play a Pacers team on the road that is trying to claw its way back into the Eastern Conference playoffs and division rival Portland, who may or may not be resting their starters in that game. For as much as the Thunder control their own destiny, they still need help. Here’s to being a Minnesota, Phoenix, Houston, and San Antonio fan in the next few days.

This is the 4th and final meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder lead the season series 2-1, with the victor of each game winning pretty convincingly. Injuries have played a role in each of the games, as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were absent for the first game, DeMarcus Cousins was injured for the second game, and Durant was out again for the third game.

The Opponent

mccallum mclemore miller kings

The Sacramento Kings come into the game with a 27-51 record. The Kings’ season started positively enough as they opened up the 2014-15 campaign 9-5. But injuries and in-fighting between the head coach and the front office quickly changed the course of the season in a negative way. In the end, head coach Mike Malone was fired in mid-December and the Kings never regained any of the momentum they had when they started the season. Since then, they’ve gone on to hire veteran coach George Karl to be their coach for the foreseeable future.  The coaching change hasn’t done much to stem the tide, as the Kings have gone 9-17 since Karl was hired. They score 100.9 points per game (good for 13th in the league), but give up 104.9 points per game (which is 28th worst in the league). The current starting back-court for the Kings is an inexperienced bunch made up of two 2nd year players (Ray McCallum and Ben McLemore). Both have been inefficient in their shot selection and decision making. On the wing, veteran Omri Casspi  has been the Kings’ best player in the last 3 games. There is a possibility that Rudy Gay may play in this game, but he has been dealing with the after effects of a concussion. With DeMarcus Cousins being out with foot injury, the Kings have been shuffling their glut of power forwards into and out of the starting front court (Jason Thompson, Reggie Evans, Derrick Williams, and Carl Landry). Off the bench, the non-starting power forwards, Ryan Hollins, and Andre Miller will provide much of the reserve playing time.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Sacramento Kings

  • PG – Ray McCallum
  • SG – Ben McLemore
  • SF – Rudy Gay
  • PF – Jason Thompson
  • C – Carl Landry

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Andre Roberson
  • PF – Enes Kanter
  • C – Steven Adams

Three Things

1. Trap Game Potential – The Kings are not a very good team, but sometimes, the Thunder have a tendency to play down to their opponents. With so much on the line, I could definitely see a scenario where the Thunder start the game off cold and then try too hard to come back. A lot of the Thunder’s new players have never had to deal with this type of pressure, so a trap game scenario is definitely a possibility.

2. Rebounding – The Kings aren’t good at a lot of things. But they are pretty good at rebounding. And bad teams that can rebound tend to stay around in games they have no business being in contention for. Surprisingly, though, outside of Cousins, the Kings’ other big men aren’t necessarily great at rebounding. The Kings’ small forwards though, gobble up their fair share of boards, so everyone on the Thunder will have to be disciplined on the blocks for the rebounds.

kanter adams thunder

3. Twin Towers – The Thunder’s big men have a significant size advantage (outside of Sim Bhullar) over the rest of the Kings’ big men. This is another game in which both players could possibly get double-doubles against the Kings’ smaller front line.

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Posted in Thunder Pre-game Report

The Oklahoma City Thunder tank conundrum: The difference between 14 and 18

adams kanter westbrook roberson waiters morrow thunder

With Tuesday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs (and New Orleans’ subsequent defeat of the Golden State Warriors), the Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in a position they hadn’t been for the past month: outside the top 8 in the Western Conference. With only four games left and with New Orleans holding the tie-breaker between themselves and OKC, the likelihood of the Thunder missing the playoffs has become a very real possibility.

The 8th spot in the Western Conference is almost guaranteed to get the 18th pick in the draft, while the 9th spot in the Western Conference is slotted to be the 14th pick in the lottery, as they would hold the best record of all the non-playoff teams. The 14th worst team in the league has a 0.5% of getting the 1st pick, a 0.6% chance of getting the 2nd pick, and a 0.7% chance of getting the 3rd pick. The team that picks in the 14th spot has never won the draft lottery a.k.a the Number 1 pick. In 1993, the Orlando Magic won the draft lottery with a 1.52% chance of winning it. They had the best record of all the lottery teams and remain the team with the worst odds to ever garner the Number 1 pick. Since then, three more teams have been added to the NBA, so the odds are even lower now.

The possibility of Oklahoma City getting the top pick is damn near slim to none. Same goes for them getting the 2nd or 3rd pick. The question then becomes what’s more important for a championship contending team that has been saddled with bad luck: a higher draft pick or postseason experience for their playoff neophytes? More simply, is there a discernible difference between the 14th pick and the 18th pick?

leonard spurs antetokounmpo bucks

Looking back at the last five drafts, those five draft spots are extremely important for getting good role players, with the possibility of getting a lower tier superstar. The top three players that have been chosen in those spots in the past 5 yeas have been Kawhi Leonard, Eric Bledsoe, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Other players of high value include Nikola Vucevic, Dennis Schroder, Terrance Jones, Marcus Morris, and Jusuf Nurkic. Of all those players, only Marcus Morris was chosen with the 14th pick. Meanwhile, Terrance Jones and Eric Bledsoe were both chosen with the 18th pick.

From the numbers, there are no discernible differences between the 14th pick and the 18th pick. Without all the injuries, the Thunder are a championship contending team. If the team is able to keep Enes Kanter in the offseason, their needs will be peripheral at best. If the team is able to draft the mythical creature known as a 2-way shooting guard, then great. We’ve all seen grainy videos of two-way shooting guards that can shoot from the perimeter and defend their position well. According to lore, they still exist. Another need that could be addressed in the draft is another good shooter. Other than those two things, health is probably the only thing the Thunder need for next season.

Well, health and more playoff experience. Some of the remaining Thunder players that have survived the triage-apocalypse that has been this season, have never been featured players on playoff teams. Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, and Mitch McGary have never been to the postseason, and Enes Kanter made it to the playoffs in his rookie season with the Utah Jazz, but didn’t play many meaningful minutes as the San Antonio Spurs swept the Jazz in what was a lopsided first round series. The experience earned, even at the hands of a sweep by the Golden State Warriors, will be irreplaceable come this time next season.

reggie jackson kendrick perkins thunder

Think back to when the Thunder first played the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 postseason. Oklahoma City lost the series in 6 games, but the experience earned in that series fueled their next four postseason runs. The Thunder have a new set of players that have replaced some seasoned vets the Thunder had in their previous postseason runs (Kendrick Perkins, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher). Those new players need to experience what playoff basketball, at its highest, it like. I’d rather they earn that experience now, than have to earn it next season when the Thunder hopefully are chasing a title and the stakes are a lot higher.

The Thunder are in a position to get the best of both worlds: a solid first round pick and playoff experience. Is there risk for injury if the Thunder make the playoffs? Of course. But there’s a risk of injury any time any of these players gets on a basketball court, whether its in an NBA game or an offseason workout. Missing the playoffs on purpose makes no sense whatsoever, especially when there is only a 0.18% chance of obtaining a top-3 pick. Plus, there’s no way Russell Westbrook will ever stand by and allow the team to lose on purpose. The Thunder will try their hardest in these last four games, and will allow the chips to fall wherever they may fall.

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Posted in Draft, Random Thoughts
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