Enjoy the Moment: Durant and the MVP

durant thunder

Since the NBA’s first season in 1955-56, there have been 58 MVP’s. Those MVP’s have been won by 29 different players in 19 different cities (four of which currently don’t have NBA franchises). Of the 30 teams in the current NBA, 15 of those cities have never experienced an MVP season by one of their players. So when the inevitable happens and Kevin Durant is named the 2013-14 NBA MVP, Oklahoma City will join an exclusive fraternity of cities that have experienced a magical individual season by one of their players.

Oklahoma City has been lucky enough, in its short time as an NBA franchise, to experience a Coach of  the Year (Brooks, 2010), a Sixth Man of the Year (Harden, 2012), and a Rookie of the Year (Paul, 2006 with the New Orleans/OKC Hornets). The ultimate goal as a sports franchise is to win a championship. But what are teams but a collection of individuals. And if your team, if your city, houses the best individual player in that sport, that is like winning a championship in and of itself.

When an MVP season plays out, you see it coming. Of the 450-500 players that cycle through the league in a given season, only about 2-3 players are deserving of even being considered for the top individual prize in the NBA. And if you, as a fan of that team, are lucky enough to enjoy that experience, then you need to savor it. Because for as much as we like to think that MVP’s and championships will beget more MVP’s and championship, the future is never a definite when it comes to sports. The Russell Westbrook injury last season taught us that. A twist of the knee here, a tweak of the back there, an argument with the front office, and that player could be gone in an instant. Prime example is the last man to win an MVP not named LeBron James. Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose won the MVP in his third season in the league. He looked well on his way to contending for (and possibly winning) multiple MVP’s. But you know the rest of the story. Injuries and re-injuries have completely derailed his career to the point where we wonder whether he’ll ever get back to the MVP form he had pre-injury.

It’s not everyday you get to witness greatness. There are plenty of good players in the league. In any given game, you may see a 20-point scorer, a double digit rounder, or a defensive maven. Most nights the names change. But for MVP candidates, that dominance is seen on a night in/night out basis, over the course of an entire season. That degree of excellence goes from late October usually into late May/early June. That consistency is probably the biggest factor in determining who is MVP-worthy and who isn’t. It’s easy to get up for a game against Miami on a prime time Thursday TNT telecast. It’s that much harder to get up for a Tuesday night game in January against the Milwaukee Bucks. But those select few do it every night.

durant lebron james thunder heat

Eat it up Oklahoma City. Our story is a weird one in which we were basically gift wrapped a once in a generation player. Most cities, when they first get a team, have to toil around in the dredges of the league before they finally find those couple of players that actually make them competitive. But OKC was like “insta-rice”. We got the team, popped in the microwave for one minute (season) and, Voila!, playoff contender. It happened so quickly, that media decided to call it the OKC model of team rebuilding. This model, though, only works if you get a player like Durant in your clutches. It will be very interesting to see where teams like Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and New Orleans stand in about 3 years when their rebuilds should start bearing fruit.

I always wonder how the OKC fan base will be react when this current run ends. Whether its in two years (a.k.a Durant’s free agency) or in 15 years, Thunder fans have been spoiled beyond belief. But this is the NBA, and success is very cyclical, especially for small market teams. Most Oklahoma fans suffer from what is locally called, the “Sooner mentality”. In three words, the Sooner mentality means “Championship, or bust!”. And we are starting to see that with Thunder fans. Lose a game in a series, and there is a section of fans that is clamoring for Scott Brooks’ head on a platter, and another section clamoring for Thunder GM Sam Presti to sign every available free agent, luxury tax and careful budgeting be damned. Those are the fans I wish I could grab by the shoulders, shake them a bit, look into their eyes, and say, “Stop worrying and enjoy this moment! It may repeat itself next season, but it also may be a once in a lifetime event”.

As we enjoy this moment, look back on the season that made Durant an MVP. Don’t focus on the numbers though. Even though the numbers improved, they don’t tell the entire story. Focus on the maturation of the man. Many players hit their head on ceilings they create because they get satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. Like the theme in the poem Ozymandias, they stand there relishing their accomplishments without realizing their satisfaction will eventually be their downfall. Durant could have been one of those players, and he still would have been considered great. But, instead, he took the hard lessons from the previous season and focused on how he could get better. It is a rare trait in a player to never find satisfaction in their successes. Instead of basking in the glow of their brilliance, they instead survey the field and know that others will be coming after what they have. LeBron James made that transition three seasons ago. Kobe Bryant before him. And Michael Jordan before him. This is the road the Durant is on, and luckily, for us, like Route 66 and I-44, that road runs straight through Oklahoma City. Congratulations Kevin. We are all proud of you.

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Posted in Random Thoughts

Money in the bank: The Increase in Salary Cap and the Thunder

presti thunder

On Friday, the league sent a memo to all the teams in the league that the salary cap will increase by about $5 million dollars and the luxury tax line will follow suit. For teams beckoning for free agents, this is like manna from the heavens. But for teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who already have their top 3 players under contract, this type of financial relief will allow them to not only to stay out of the luxury tax, but also to remain competitive in the free agency department.

If the Thunder doesn’t trade anyone during the draft or during the offseason, here are the players that are under contract for the 2014-15 NBA season

  • Kevin Durant
  • Russell Westbrook
  • Serge Ibaka
  • Kendrick Perkins
  • Nick Collison
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Jeremy Lamb
  • Perry Jones
  • Andre Roberson
  • Steven Adams
  • Hasheem Thabeet has a team option for $1.25 million. The team picking up his option is probably dependent on whether they bring Tibor Pleiss over from Europe.
  • While still unknown, it is believed that Grant Jerrett also has a team option for the next two seasons.
  • Thabo Sefolosha, Caron Butler, and Derek Fisher will be unrestricted free agents.

With 10 players under contract, that leaves 5 possible roster spots to play with. The Thunder will not be under the salary cap for the foreseeable future, but their biggest battle is staying under the luxury tax to avoid its punitive penalties. With the increase in the luxury tax line, the Thunder are about $9 million dollars under the line. Here are 5 possible things the team may do with this increase in the luxury tax line:

1. Sign Reggie Jackson to an extension

It may not be this offseason, but with the increase in revenue, the team will make it a priority to keep Jackson in their camp. The reasons for resigning Jackson are threefold: First, he provides the necessary scoring and play-making off the bench that would seriously be lacking if he weren’t on the team. Secondly, he works great with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka as a 3rd/4th option in the crunchtime line-up. Third, and most importantly, he is a great insurance policy to have if Westbrook’s knee issues ever creep up again. The great unknown is how Westbrook’s knee injury will affect him for the next 3 seasons that he is under contract with the Thunder. Will the team have to maintain their rest policy on back to backs for the rest of his career? Will Westbrook have sporadic bouts with knee tendinitis that may keep him out for a couple games at a time? Will Westbrook have to have arthroscopic scopes from time to time to clean out any debris that will keep him out for 6-8 weeks at a time? These are all issues that will be alleviated if the team resigns Jackson in these next two offseasons.

reggie jackson thunder

This will not be another James Harden situation. For as good as Jackson is, he is not a top 10 player in the league. And the Thunder are in a much better position now to offer their current sixth man a sizeable contract than they were two seasons ago. Let’s not forget, the Thunder offered Harden a near max contract (somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 years/ $52 million) that would have put them over the luxury tax line had he signed it. The Thunder are willing to go over the tax line, but only for the right player and for the right price. I’m not saying that Reggie Jackson’s extension will push them into luxury tax territory because this extension will coincide with Kendrick Perkins’ and (sadness) Nick Collison’s contracts expiring. A 4 year/$26-28 million dollar contract would probably be what the Thunder are shooting for.

2. Keep Kendrick Perkins

If the tax line would have stayed the same for next season, I could have seen a scenario where Perkins would have either been amnestied or traded. Highly unlikely, but still probable. With the tax line bumped up, though, the organization probably sees no reason to let go of the big man at the moment. Say what you want about Perkins, but the team has a great winning percentage when he plays and looks a bit lost defensively in the games that he doesn’t. Is he offensive napalm? Yes. But he’s also a great communicator on the defensive end and holds his teammates accountable when they are not where they are supposed to be on that side of the floor. I don’t know if the Thunder are yet ready to head into a championship contending season with 2nd year center Steven Adams as their starter and Hasheem Thabeet/Tibor Pleiss as his back-up.

3. Use the Kevin Martin Traded Player Exception (TPE)

Many fans, me included, were disappointed when the team didn’t use the Eric Maynor TPE at the trade deadline this season. I thought the team could have used Maynor’s TPE (about $2.2 million) on a shooter from a team that was out of playoff contention. Players like CJ Miles of Cleveland or Anthony Morrow of New Orleans fit into that category. Instead the team let the TPE expire and got nothing from the Maynor deal other than the rights to a European player with a cool name that will never make the trek across the Atlantic.

When the Thunder convinced the Minnesota Timberwolves to do a sign and trade for Kevin Martin, the team obtained a $6.6 million dollar TPE. With the increase in the tax line, Thunder GM Sam Presti should be able to use some or all of the TPE to get a player they covet.

How will they use it? The few teams that are vying for Carmelo Anthony’s services will have to shed salary to obtain him. Those teams will be looking to shed salary without taking any salary back. The Thunder could deal with a team like Chicago to obtain Mike Dunleavy, whose $3 million salary fits nicely within the parameters of the TPE. The trade could work as follows:

  • Bulls get – Thunder’s 1st round pick (29th pick) and a $3.4 million dollar TPE
  • Thunder get – Mike Dunleavy and the Bobcats 1st round pick (via Chicago, No. 16)

The Bulls still end up with 2 first rounders, but the cost is less, which allows them more money under the cap to attempt to sign Carmelo Anthony. Dunleavy is an expiring contract and probably wouldn’t have been on the Bulls past next season.

4. Resign Caron Butler

butler durant westbrook ibaka lamb thunder

Caron Butler seems to be working out well in his short stint with the team. With Derek Fisher “retiring” and the possibility of Thabo Sefolosha not returning after this season, keeping a guy like Butler could shore up many of those intangibles that will be missing if those two guys leave. Butler would have to take a significant pay cut to stay on the team, but if he values playing for a contender, that may be a possibility.

5. Prepare for the next extension for the Big 3.

Presti is always looking 3 or 4 steps ahead. Durant has 2 years left on is current deal after this season, and Westbrook and Ibaka have 3 years left. If the Thunder really follow the Spurs’ model, they’ll be looking to keep this trio together. The next deals for Durant and Westbrook could take them in to the $20 million per season category. The Thunder may need Durant and Westbrook to make sacrifices in order to not only keep the team competitive, but also keep the core together.

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Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder series preview

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder

So it’s set. First up on Oklahoma City’s platter is the team that knocked them out of last season’s playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies. It took a bit longer than expected for the playoff seeding to be decided, but in the end, it was almost manifest destiny for these two teams to meet in the playoffs once more. It’s like fate didn’t really like how the series played out last season (you know, no Russell Westbrook and all), so she decided to initiate a do-over.

Fate has a habit of matching the Thunder against opponents they have a history with. Last season it was James Harden-led Houston Rockets in the first round (and the subsequent Patrick Beverly fallout). Two seasons ago, it was the Dallas Mavericks, who had beaten the Thunder the previous season in the Western Conference Finals and the Los Angeles Lakers, in a metaphorical passing of the torch.

Regular season series

Wins in the regular season don’t always paint a clear picture as to how a series will play out. Many variables exist during the season that do not exist during the playoffs. Scheduling, fatigue, and sample size are all factors that come into play during the regular season, but have little to no bearing during the playoffs. But there are always factors within a season series that are highly applicable to the playoff series.

westbrook conley thunder grizzlies

The Thunder won the season series against the Grizzlies 3-1. Injuries played a major role in the outcome of a couple of the games. In the first game, a 116-100 OKC victory, the Grizzlies were without Marc Gasol, who was out with a knee injury. In the second game, a 90-87 Memphis victory, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook, while the Grizzlies had their full complement of players.  In the 3rd game, both team were without their starting point guards, but the Thunder prevailed 86-77. The fourth game, a 113-107 OKC victory, saw both teams basically at full strength (even though Kendrick Perkins was out and Thabo Sefolosha only played 4 minutes) and is probably more indicative as to how the series will go.

Schedule

  • Game 1 – Saturday, 19 April 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 2 – Monday, 21 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 3 – Thursday, 24 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)
  • Game 4 – Tuesday, 26 April 2014 at 8:30 PM CST (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)
  • Game 5 – Tuesday, 29 April 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 6 – Thursday, 01 May 2014 TBD (FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN)*
  • Game 7 – Saturday, 03 May 2014 TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*

* If necessary

Probable Starting Line-ups

Memphis Grizzlies

  • PG – Mike Conley
  • SG – Courtney Lee
  • SF – Tayshaun Prince
  • PF – Zach Randolph
  • C – Marc Gasol
  • Bench depth – Tony Allen, Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Ed Davis, Beno Udrih

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins
  • Bench depth – Reggie Jackson, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Series

Post defense - Strength on strength. The Grizzlies’ offensive strong suit is the Thunder’s defensive strong suit. The Thunder have no problem packing the paint and retreating back on shooters. In fact, it’s what they do best (not the retreating back on shooters part, though). The Thunder have 4 players capable of defending Gasol, Randolph, and Kosta Koufos. What will be interesting is who starts off on who. Positionally, it should be Ibaka on Randolph and Perkins on Gasol. But, style-wise, Randolph’s bruising style is more suited for Perkins and Ibaka should be able to stay on Gasol, who likes to operate from 15 feet in.

perkins ibaka randolph gasol thunder grizzlies

Pace - Memphis tries to muddy up the game and keep it in the 90′s. If they are able to run their offense (half court-oriented, using a lot of the clock), and are able to dictate how you run your offense, that keeps them in their comfort zone. But if you force turnovers, score in transition, and don’t allow them to settle in defensively, it becomes very difficult for the Grizzlies to keep up in the scoring department.

Point guards - Probably the biggest factors in the series. Last season, the Thunder were without Russell Westbrook for the entire series. This season, the Grizzlies come into the series with a point guard that may have a nagging hamstring injury (Conley) and no back-up, due to Nick Calathes being suspended for 20 games due to a failed drug test. The Grizzlies come into the series with a slightly injured starting point guard and Beno Udrih. The Thunder on the other hand, come into the series with both their point guards in tow.

X-factors

For Memphis – Their X-factor is Mike Miller. The one way to combat a defense that focuses on the paint is to punish it with perimeter shooting. Mike Miller has the ability to punish teams from the outside, and it’s one of the reasons the Thunder pursued so aggressively in the offseason.

miller thabeet thunder grizzlies

For Oklahoma City – Their X-factor is Reggie Jackson. With Calathes being suspended for the series, Jackson should run roughshod when he’s in the game against the bench.

Prediction

Thunder in 5.

Two things: First thing, not only is Russell Westbrook back and healthy for the Thunder, but the point guard depth for the Grizzlies took a hit with Calathes’ suspension. Secondly, Kevin Durant has taken last season’s disappointment and learned from it. He’s more adept at finding the open man and willing to punish teams with the pass, instead of firing up an ill-advised jumper with two or three defenders draped on him.

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Posted in Thunder Pre-game Report

Detroit Pistons vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 82 of 82)

adams durant westbrook singler thunder pistons

  • When: Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 7:00 PM EST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The Oklahoma City Thunder have no one to blame but themselves for being in this position. The Thunder have had 2 opportunities to not only put the Clippers away in their chase of the No. 2 seed in the West, but also of resting their guys, namely Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Instead, the Thunder will have to play a real game on the last game of the season in order to hang onto the 2nd seed.

This will be the 2nd and final (duh!) meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder won the first meeting 119-110. It was a memorable game because Thunder rookie Steven Adams had 17 points and 10 boards in only his 5th game. That would end up being, statistically, his best game of the season.

The Opponent

drummond smith jennings monroe pistons

The Pistons come into the game with a 29-52 record. It is a season that has been mired in disappointment beginning with the firing of head coach Maurice Cheeks and culminating in the resignation of longtime GM and Pistons great Joe Dumars. The additions of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith were supposed to get this team over the edge, but instead, these two players have been a huge part of the problem. Their lack of efficiency from the perimeter has made life that much harder for burgeoning big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. It’s a team that was not put together very well, and the effects are showing on the court.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Detroit Pistons

  • PG – Brandon Jennings
  • SG – Rodney Stuckey
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Greg Monroe
  • C – Andre Drummond

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

Perimeter Defense - Defensively, this game caters to the Thunder’s strength. Both Monroe and Drummond are post players that rarely venture further than 15 feet out. The Thunder post players (Ibaka, Perkins, Adams, and Collison) will be able to remain in their comfort zone in the paint. Where the Pistons could beat the Thunder is on the perimeter. With the inside contained, the Thunder players should stay with the shooters and defend the 3-point line.

adams jackson lamb jennings thunder pistons

 

Mind Games - The Clippers will be resting some of their players (Blake Griffin and JJ Redick), and claim they aren’t actively chasing the 2 seed. But that sounds like a psychological ploy to me. If the Thunder play lackadaisically and lose this game, you can bet the Clippers will deploy all available resources to win their game against the Blazers. Remember, the Clippers’ game starts as the Thunder game is ending. Also of note: The Blazers have nothing to play for (can’t move up/can’t move down) so they will probably be resting their players also.

3. Stay Healthy - We are playing for the second season, not this season. Stay healthy, gentlemen.

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Posted in Thunder Pre-game Report

On Second Thought: An NBA Postscript

thunder warriors tip off

When the season begins, every writer and media pundit has predictions for how teams will do. Sometimes they are spot on. Sometimes they are dead wrong. Here a collective of how many people thought the seasons of each team would go, and how they really went.

Atlanta Hawks – After years of mediocrity, the Hawks are in a position to begin rebuilding with the selection of Dennis Schroder and Lucas Nogueira.

  • Reality: The Hawks are still mediocre, but crept into the playoffs in the terrible Eastern Conference.

Boston Celtics – With the team blown up, Boston looks to rebuild through the draft.

  • Reality: Boston actually performed a little bit better than people thought, but are still in rebuild mode.

Brooklyn Nets – With the acquisition of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry from Boston, the Nets look to stack a team to contend with the likes of Miami and Indiana.

  • Reality – It took a buzzer beater from Joe Johnson in early January to finally get this team kick started. Since then, they are 34-15, and appear to be the strongest contender in the East to challenged Miami and Indiana.

Charlotte Bobcats: Biggest free agent signing in team history, but the team still has too many holes to contend for a playoff spot.

  • Reality – New head coach Steve Clifford brought a defense first attitude that transformed the identity of the team and made them competitive every night. Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker have formed a dangerous offensive duo that could give a contender trouble come playoff time.

Chicago Bulls – The return of Derrick Rose will bring this team back to the position it was two seasons ago: a title contender.

APphoto_Bulls Rose Basketball

  • Reality – Yeah, about that return. It lasted 10 games. A torn meniscus derailed Rose’s comeback plans and once again, derailed Chicago’s chances of contending. They still play hard and will give whoever they play fits in the playoffs because of their defense. But the reality is that, without Rose, they don’t have any one player dynamic enough to take over in the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers – With 2 No. 1 picks and 2 No. 4 picks on the roster within the past 3 years, the young Cavs are looking to take the next step as a franchise.

  • Reality – Sometimes, youth and immaturity go hand in hand. Going from a rebuilding team to a playoff contender can be a difficult leap to take if most of your players have never been there.

Dallas Mavericks – The acquisitions of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon will help Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs contend for a playoff spot.

  • Reality – That basically is the reality. A healthy Dirk and an efficient (by his standards) Monta Ellis have helped Dallas get back to the playoffs after a one year absence.

Denver Nuggets – The loss of Andre Iguadola will affect Denver’s defense, but their depth will help keep them in the playoffs.

  • Reality – Injuries (old and new) destroyed the depth the Nuggets had and prevented them from reaching the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.

Detroit Pistons – The acquisitions of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith should help young big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe make the jump into their first playoff foray.

  • Reality – The continued development of Drummond and Monroe could not overcome the inefficiency of Smith and Jennings. The Pistons disappointed and long time GM Joe Dumars was let go.

Golden State Warriors – The addition of Andre Iguadola will provide the perimeter defense to balance the offense provided by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Warriors will improve upon their surprising season from the previous year.

  • Reality – While the team has improved in terms of record, injuries to Andrew Bogut and David Lee may prevent the team from improving upon their 2nd round exit from last season’s playoffs.

Houston Rockets – The winners of last summer’s free agency sweepstake should easily see the team rise from playoff team to title contending team with the addition of Dwight Howard.

dwight howard houston rockets

  • Reality – Houston is a fringe title contender, but seems to struggle, surprisingly, on defense. Houston’s perimeter defense is porous, at best, which leaves Howard on an island in the paint and shooters open on the perimeter.

Indiana Pacers – The team that was a game away from knocking the Heat out of the playoffs looks to take that experience and build upon it.

  • Reality – What once looked like to an inevitable meeting between the Pacers and Heat came into doubt when the Pacers struggled after the All-Star break. Having recovered enough to get the No. 1 seed in the East, it will be interesting to see which Pacers team we get the rest of the way: the one from Nov – Jan or the one from the middle of February on.

Los Angeles Clippers – The team built around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and a bevy of shooters will throw their hat into the title contending conversation and will be a force come playoff time.

  • Reality – Chris Paul has Chris Paul’d and Blake Griffin has become what we all thought he would become (a double/double monster). The Clippers are a title contender if their shooters, namely JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford, remain healthy.

Los Angeles Lakers – If the team can stay afloat until Kobe returns in December, they could be a dark horse threat in the Western Conference.

  • Reality – Those 6 games in December were kind of like watching Michael Jordan in a Wizard uniform. But a lot like Derrick Rose, Kobe got re-injured and didn’t play another game for the Lakers. Unlike the Bulls though, the Lakers weren’t built to sustain a season without Kobe, and withered away under a cloud of Nick Young yolo-jumpers.

Memphis Grizzlies – After reaching (and getting swept) in the Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies are hoping the additions of  Mike Miller and Kostas Koufos will help take the team to the next level.

  • Reality – After stumbling a bit early in the season due to an injury to Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have recovered enough to secure a playoff spot. The question is whether this team has reached its ceiling.

Miami Heat – The defending champs should blaze through the regular season as one of the top teams, and have as good a chance as anyone else to find themselves holding the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.

  • Reality – Yep, it’s Miami. It’s Lebron. They coasted and played mediocre (by their standards), but still managed to get the No. 2 spot in the East while resting most of their main players throughout the season.

Milwaukee Bucks – After getting swept by the Heat in the previous season, the Bucks look to get younger and build for the future. Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders will get plenty of development time this season.

giannis antetokounmpo bucks

  • Reality – If the goal was to get younger and build for the future, mission accomplished. The Bucks handed the keys of the ship to the kids and the results have gone as expected. The worst record and the best chance at drafting an impact player in this loaded draft.

Minnesota Timberwolves – The addition of Kevin Martin and the health (FINALLY!) of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio should finally propel this team into the playoffs.

  • Reality – It’s hard to make the playoffs in the West. The Wolves had a +2.8 in terms of margin of victory, but still ended up 10th in the West. A positive MOV usually means you blow opponents out when you win, but you lose the close games. It’s the story of the Minnesota’s season.

New Orleans Pelicans – New name, new uniform, same rebuild. The addition of Jrue Holiday and the continued development of Anthony Davis should help the team improve from the previous season, but it won’t be enough for a playoff spot.

  • Reality – Injuries really did a number on the Pelicans this season, but above prediction was spot on.

New York Knicks – The ultimate hot/cold team. They did nothing to drastically improve the team in the offseason. They could either duplicate last year’s feat and win over 50 games or they could completely bottom out and win less than 40.

  • Reality – The Knicks took what was behind Door No. 2. The Knicks came out the gate struggling to shoot the ball, and never recovered consistently throughout the season. They still had a chance at making the playoffs in the final month, but their inconsistent play was too much for them in the end.

Oklahoma City Thunder – The Thunder got their first dose of reality since settling in the Great Plains with Russell Westbrook’s injury. How the Thunder, and especially Kevin Durant, handle the absence of Russell Westbrook will go a long way to determining how this season will play out. Will they be the one man band they were in the playoffs last season or will they be more diverse and share the load?

slim reaper

  • Reality – Not only did the Thunder weather the initial storm, but they also weathered another storm in the middle of the season. Not only did Kevin Durant share the load, but he also learned how to completely take over a game. The “Slim Reaper” stretch from mid-January to the All-Star break pushed his game to an entire different level and probably won him the MVP. The team never wavered and is currently ahead of where most people thought they would be in the beginning of the season.

Orlando Magic – The post-Dwight Howard rebuild is in full-swing. The Magic have a ton of young players they need to develop in the next few seasons. This season will be no different than the last.

  • Reality – Yep, the Magic are in full rebuild mode.

Philadelphia 76ers – Another team that is in full rebuild mode. The team traded its only All-Star, Jrue Holiday, for Nerlens Noel and will probably look to trade Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes who will be free agents at the end of the year.

  • Reality – The prediction for this team was tame. This team hit rock bottom (tanktastic!) and then decided to keep on digging (26 game losing streak).

Phoenix Suns – Another team that is looking towards the future and not focusing on the present. The team traded their only post presence in Marcin Gortat for someone that will probably not suit up at all this season (Emeka Okafor). This combination of players will have the fans in Phoenix asking if the Sun has set yet.

  • Reality – Wow, completely wrong on this assessment. This is why you play the games. The Suns banded together under first year coach Jeff Hornacek, and surprised everyone from day one with their up-tempo offense and relentless energy. Unfortunately, their youth showed in the final week of the season as they dropped the two games they needed against the two teams ahead of them.

Portland Trailblazers – A talented team that has underachieved the last few seasons, the Trailblazers are at a cross-roads as to what to do with this current roster. They have good players, but the team has no idea what it’s ceiling is. If everyone stays healthy, this team could make some noise in the Western Conference.

  • Reality – The Trailblazers made it through the season virtually unscathed and have finally begun to put it all together. The starting 5 has been an offensive powder keg all season, but their depth and defense leave a lot to be desired.

Sacramento Kings – The fact that the Kings are in Sacramento for the foreseeable future makes this season a success for Sacramentans. On the court, this team is beginning to resemble a rebuild gone wrong. The key player (DeMarcus Cousins) is an immature malcontent and the rest of the team is a ragtag bunch of inefficient shooters, undersized power forwards, and shoot first point guards.

  • Reality – The Kings shuffled their personnel around throughout the season, but the result has been the same…bad basketball. Good news is that Cousins seems to be maturing and developing into a franchise player.

San Antonio Spurs – Every year, 29 other teams wonder when San Antonio will irreversibly age. And every year, 29 teams come out disappointed. With a team that was a Kawhi Leonard free throw away from winning the championship, this year will be business as usual. They’ll probably rest their players, win games, and end up near the top of the Western Conference.

tim duncan spurs

 

  • Reality – Yep, your 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. Ol’ Faithful

Toronto Raptors – The Raptors are a team that is in the decision-making portion for their rebuild. They have developed some young players and now they have to see who is kept and who is quelled. With their inefficient shooters and inexperienced post players, look for this year’s Raptors team to look a lot like last season’s.

  • Reality – Well, surprise surprise. It’s a good thing the Thunder has the Raptor’s pick from last season, because it wasn’t going to be any good this season. The Raptors’ season took off after the Rudy Gay trade that gave them a ton of balance and depth. The young players, namely, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, have developed into good players that the team can build off of. The lottery team has jumped all the way to the 3 spot in the East.

Utah Jazz – When a team doesn’t sign it’s two best players, who also happen to be free agents, that is usually a sign of an impending rebuild.

  • Reality – While the Jazz are currently in a rebuild, it is a staggered rebuild where they have been stockpiling young players (Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks) for the past 3 seasons and now want to start a full-on rebuild. Results are still inconclusive.

Washington Wizards – With the addition of Marcin Gortat, the Wizards are starting to put together an extremely formidable starting line-up. If they can just get over the proverbial hump, they should be a power in the East for the next couple of seasons.

  • Reality – It took them a while to make it over that proverbial hump, but once they got a few games over .500, they maintained and are in the thick of the playoff race in the East.
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Posted in Around the League

Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans preview (Game 81 of 82)

rivers perkins westbrook thunder perkins

  • When: Monday, 14 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans, LA

The magic number for the Thunder to clinch the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference is 1. The remaining schedule for the Los Angeles Clippers is a lot more difficult than the remaining schedule for the Thunder. With that said though, it would probably be in the Thunder’s best interest to win tonight and cease any drama relating to the “race for No.2″.

This will be the 4th and final meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder defeated the Pelicans last Friday, 116-94, for the 10 consecutive time dating back 3 seasons.

The Opponent

holiday anderson pelicans

The Pelicans come into the game having lost their last 8 games. Injuries have completely decimated their season, as their top 6 players are likely to be out for the rest of the season (if Tyreke Evans sits out the rest of the year). Unfortunately, their ineptitude in the wins department probably will not yield them a lottery pick due to a draft day deal from last June that netted them Jrue Holiday from the Philadelphia 76ers. With all those injuries, the best players the Pelicans have left are role players, at best.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

New Orleans Pelicans

  • PG – Austin Rivers
  • SG – Anthony Morrow
  • SF – Darius Miller
  • PF – Jeff Withey
  • C – Greg Stiemsma

Edit: Apparently, Greg Stiemsma was waived today. So, obviously, he will not be starting at the 5. More than likely, Withey will be the 5 and Al-Farouq Aminu or Luke Babbitt will play the 4. 

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Derek Fisher
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Point Guard - With the Thunder playing yesterday, this is a scheduled rest day for Russell Westbrook. Also in that game, Reggie Jackson suffered an apparent neck/back injury when he got sandwiched in a pick and roll. This may be first time since December 2008 that Westbrook or Jackson doesn’t start a game at point guard for the Thunder. With the importance of having everyone as healthy as possible for the playoffs, look for the Thunder to exercise caution and sit Westbrook and Jackson.

fisher durant sefolosha perkins thunder

2. Bench play - Without an emergency 4th point guard, look for the Thunder to use Jeremy Lamb more as a play-maker. Also, with Nick Collison’s body looking like it was used as a stunt double for Russell Crowe in Gladiator, look for Perry Jones to get some run at one of the forward spots.

3. Get it done - Win tonight, and the next game only matters to the rookies and 2nd year players on the roster. This team is primed for the playoffs and is just frothing at the mouth to get it started.

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Posted in Thunder Pre-game Report

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Indiana Pacers preview (Game 80 of 82)

westbrook collison west hibbert thunder pacers

  • When: Sunday, 13 April 2014 at 12:00 PM CST
  • Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN

“We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2!” That will be Oklahoma City’s battle cry heading into the playoffs. Hopefully they won’t be saying that in June. The San Antonio Spurs took care of business in their last two games, and locked in their No. 1 seed for the playoffs. The only thing still left to see is who the Thunder will face in the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, and Memphis Grizzlies all have the possibility of finishing with the 7th seed.

The team the Thunder are facing are trying to avoid the same fate as the Thunder. The Indiana Pacers are currently tied with the Miami Heat for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but hold the tie-breaker by virtue of their conference record. With two games remaining for both, the ball is entirely in the Pacers’ court. Finish with the same record as the Heat and they end up with the No. 1 seed. This will be the second and final meeting of the season between the Thunder and Pacers. The Thunder won the first meeting early in the season, 118-94.

The Opponent

hibbert west george pacers

The Pacers come into the game with a 54-26 record, and tied for first in the Eastern Conference. In the first 54 games of the season, the Pacers started hot with a 41-13 record. Since then, they are 13-13, with only 2 of those victories against playoff teams. Many theories abound as to what happened to the Pacers since February 20th. That day coincided with the Danny Granger for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen trade. It may be coincidence, but Granger was a veteran who was finally making his way back into the rotation from a knee injury that had robbed the past 1.5 seasons from him. With the trade, the Pacers lost a valuable locker room presence that may have helped in a locker room that may have already been fracturing. But the real issue at hand, may be the lack of offense. While never a high scoring outfit, the Pacers have slipped to near anemic levels, scoring only 96.6 points per game, which is the least of any of the playoffs team not named Chicago or Memphis. The lack of offense has coincided more with the regression to the mean for Paul George and Roy Hibbert. They probably played a bit over their heads in the first half of the season and have failed to reach that sort of production since.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Indiana Pacers

  • PG – George Hill
  • SG – Lance Stephenson
  • SF – Paul George
  • PF – David West
  • C – Roy Hibbert

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Meaning of the Game - The Thunder are basically locked into the No. 2 spot in their conference. But the Pacers will be fighting and clawing in their last two games to try and maintain the No. 1 seeding. In appearance, this game seems to mean more to the Pacers. But don’t be surprised if the Thunder use this game to send a message: We don’t care if it’s Miami or Indiana, and we’re not helping one or the other.

westbrook hibbert perkins thunder pacers

2. Paint defense - The Pacers weaknesses fall right into the Thunder’s wheel-well. The Pacers’ lack of 3-point shooting causes them to lose the dish part of “drive and dish”. The Thunder are great at packing the paint and hoping their length will bother the opponents on the perimeter.

3. Offense - The notion that the Pacers are great defensively could be a bit of an illusion. Only 5 of the Eastern Conference teams score over 100 points per game. With so little offense in their conference, the Pacers have been feasting on offensively anemic teams. Against the top 9 teams in the West, the Pacers are only 7-10, with their last victory happening on February 7th, against the Trailblazers. With the Thunder at full strength, the Thunder should not have any problem outscoring the Pacers.

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