Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Key: Game Planning against James Harden

The competition for the Thunder’s third banana is in full swing between James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Harden provides on the offensive end what Ibaka provides on the defensive end. What I have begun to notice, though, is that teams, especially playoff teams, are starting to aggressively scout James Harden and his tendencies. Serge Ibaka is still a wild card, in that his untapped potential lends an air mystery surrounding how to guard him. The way Ibaka played at the beginning of the season is completely different from the way he is playing now. Eventually, Serge’s evolution as a player will plateau and teams will have a checklist on how to guard Ibaka. But for right now, the man receiving the opposing team’s attention on the defensive end is the Bearded One.

When teams play the Oklahoma City Thunder, they have an idea of how to counter Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They either have a physical defender for Durant or they hope that he has an off-night in the FG department. Regarding Westbrook, they either play him with a bigger player (a la Lebron James or Kobe Bryant), force him into the heart of the defense, or hope he has one of those high turnover, low FG percentage nights. Either way, it’s a classic case of pick your poison. But with so much of the offense coming from those two players alone, many teams are content with letting them get their numbers, and instead focusing their defensive attention on the rest of the players, especially James Harden.

Great games by Durant and Westbrook usually net around 55 – 65 points. If you maintain Harden and shut down his attack with the 2nd unit, you can probably beat the Thunder with 95 points. Using that wisdom, teams are starting to focus a lot of their defensive attention on Harden. When the second unit is in, the Thunder usually runs the same 3 or 4 sets. But their favorite, by far, is the Nick Collison/James Harden pick and roll on the 3-point wing. One of 4 things happens on this play:

  1. Nick completely screens the defenders and Harden backs up for an uncontested 3-pointer.
  2. Nick screens the defender just enough for Harden to split the double team and use his patented Euro-step to get into the lane.
  3. The two defenders pays so much attention to Harden that it leaves Collison either open for a midrange jumper or a roll to the basket
  4. The defenders switch creating a mismatch that either Harden or Collison can exploit.

This James Harden mix shows all the ways that the Harden/Collison pick and roll works:

 

With about a season and half worth of film on Harden and Collison, good teams are starting to do a couple things to stymie this effective offensive attack. First off, they are putting their hands up in the passing lanes. While Harden is an effective passer, he has a tendency to be predictable and, in essence, choreograph his no-look passes. The second thing that defenses are doing is closing up the lane between the two defenders in the pick and roll. This negates the ability for Harden to split the double team and get into the lane. This was very evident in the Heat game, when the 8 – 0 Heat run in the 4th quarter was spearheaded by two consecutive turnovers by Harden in this pick and roll scenario. Great defensive teams will choose Collison to beat them offensively, instead of Harden.

Harden has been the key to OKC’s offensive efficiency. Durant and Westbrook are going to get theirs. When you have the 2nd and 5th leading scorers in the league, they will find ways to put the ball through the basket. When Harden is allowed to be effective, he adds an entirely different dimension to the Thunder offense that makes the defense feel like the attack is coming in continuous waves. When he protects the ball and manages the second team, the team usually wins. In their 12 losses, Harden is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game. In the wins in which he has played, he’s averaging just under 2 turnovers per game (1.9).

The predictability of Harden’s offense has allowed teams to start making defensive game plans against Harden. While the increase in turnovers over the past 10 games (3.4, as compared to 2.0 in the first 39 games) can be attributed to an increase in usage and minutes, there’s no denying that an efficient Harden is the key to the Thunder advancement this season and beyond.

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The Thunder and Derek Fisher

Ask any great player who has retired having never won a championship what they would’ve done to get one. Anything short of selling their first born or their soul would probably be the collective answer. But, realistically, would they have traded their best friend on the team to get that final piece? Would they have signed that one questionable knucklehead if it meant getting that title? The answer, each and every time, will probably be yes. The window of opportunity to win a championship is so small, that when that opportunity knocks, it’s best not to hesitate. Can you imagine what Charles Barkley would have given to get a ring? What about Karl Malone? John Stockton? Patrick Ewing? 

Fans tend to think if their team has 2 young superstars, they will contend for the next decade. Ask Portland fans how that worked out for them. The Oklahoma City Thunder have one of the best young cores in the league. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka are all under the age of 24 and are all primed to see action in future All Star games. But what would have happened if the point guard on the team that was recovering from ACL surgery were Russell Westbrook, instead of Eric Maynor? 

That injury to Maynor is what thrust rookie point guard Reggie Jackson into prime action for a title contending team. Before we get into what Jackson has done since he’s been pushed into the rotation as the main back-up point guard, let’s see what he was supposed to be. As the 24th pick in the draft, a player is not expected to be an instant contributor. If a team is picking that late, it usually means that they have a good record and made it into the playoffs. While they may be needing an impact player, they don’t expect to acquire one this late in the draft. Reggie Jackson was supposed to get his feet wet this year. He was expected to learn the speed and nuances of the game, develop a niche, and possibly spend some time in Tulsa with the Thunder’s D-League team. Instead, with the injury to Maynor, he was expected to manage a bench unit that was one of the best in the league. For those of you with any military experience, this is the equivalent of a private being put in charge a platoon. 

Jackson has played the way a rookie in his position would. Good plays sandwiched between mental errors. One of the hardest things to do as a rookie is to play the game while you are thinking. Young players tend to rely exclusively on instincts and athleticism. But if they start to think too much, it begins to muddle their athleticism. This is currently what is happening withJackson. He wanting to play like a traditional point guard, but his game is more geared towards being a combo guard. Teams are starting to trap him more and, in a way, make him think more. This leads to one of two things with Jackson: either a turnover or Jackson trying to neuter himself on the court, by giving the ball up to a teammate as quickly as possible. 

And don’t get me wrong; I’m not dogging the kid. He’s been put in a situation that he shouldn’t have been facing for at least another season. When Jackson does make a play, all the potential that Presti saw in him gets put on full display. The athleticism, the fearlessness, the comic-book like wingspan, the defensive potential. But he never has gotten a chance to ease into learning how to play in the league. Just imagine getting behind the wheel for the first time, and then getting your license the next day. You would eventually learn how to drive, but you may get into a couple of fender benders along the way. 

This is why the possible signing of newly released Derek Fisher is so important. What Fisher lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in experience and veteran savvy. The signing would not be a chemistry shaker, as Fisher has always been regarded as a great locker room guy. It’s a move that just makes sense. He would slide into the back-up point guard role when needed, and would be the experienced hand that would guide the team when necessary. It’s moves like this that win championships. You don’t just plug up holes in sinking ships. You do that in strong ships too. Good back-up point guard play is a necessity on this team. Fisher provides that. Make the move Presti. Go Thunder!

Growing Pains

One of the most difficult things to do as a parent is letting your children make their own mistakes, and hoping that they learn from them. As a father of 3, I know this very well. And being that my oldest is still under 10 years of age, I know that I have a lot more stresses coming my way in watching them live and learn. The end result is usually great, but the journey can be angst-filled.

It’s very comparable to being a fan of a team. Just like with your own kids, you take ownership of that team. You buy the season tickets and the merchandise, all in hopes of providing nourishment (capital) to the development of that team. You turn any available television to the local broadcast, wherever you are at, in hopes that increasing the number of homes in which the game is viewed will increase the advertising revenue for the team. You hope that, even though you are only one of probably tens of thousands, your contributions will help in the team rise up to its full potential.

As you invest in the growth of the team, you also expect for the players on the team to perform. But just as you expect your kids to perform well in school and behave in all facets of life, you also know that they will commit mistakes. Why should it be any different when it comes to athletes on the playing field? Mind you, when I use this analogy, I’m only speaking about the athlete on the playing field. I’m not talking about their lives outside of the playing surface. And this analogy carries a little more weight when most of the players on the team are young.

Case in point, the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are a peculiar case because they are so young, but have been through the postseason battles for the past 2 seasons. You really don’t see too many cases where a team goes from being possibly one of the worst in league history (starting off 3-29 in the 2008-09 season) to contending for the best record 3 seasons later, with basically the same nucleus. This isn’t a team that was built through free-agency. Instead, this has been a team that has been allowed to grow organically while shrewdly adding pieces to the core. We, as fans, have witnessed this progression and are emotionally attached to it.

As we’ve seen since the All Star break, the Thunder have been acting a little hard-headed. They are akin to a high school student, whom you know can pull off straight A’s, but you battle with constantly about their aloofness and lack of maturity. Lately, they’ve played unfocused basketball for 75% of the game, while choosing to turn up the cooker in the 4th quarter to mixed results. In the 8 games they’ve played since the All-Star break, they have been behind in the 2nd half in 7 of them, losing 3 in the process. While the Thunder have a penchant for making big plays in the 4th quarter, the law of averages dictates that, when they put themselves in this predicament, that they won’t win every one of those games. There are set backs to being too clutch.

What we saw two nights ago against the Houston Rockets was a bad day at school for one of the Thunder’s star pupils. Russell Westbrook’s meltdown in the final minutes of the 4th quarter sent Thunder Nation into a tizzy, even bringing up trade requests since it was 3 days before the deadline. Did his technical foul and turnovers cost the Thunder the game? Partially, yes. Could his post game interview antics rub people the wrong way? Yes. But look at it this way; it was a mistake (actually, it was a cascade of mistakes). The thing about Westbrook is that he usually learns from his mistakes pretty quickly. He is who he is: a cauldron of fire that sometimes blow its lid. The same energy that he uses to torch opponents can sometimes burn him if someone pushes the right buttons. And Goran Dragic was pushing all the right buttons that night. The good thing about all this is that it happened in March. I can guarantee you, because of these recent events, this will not take place in May.

Sometimes as a parent, you have to let your children learn on their own. Those bumps along the road are what forge the person that they become. One of the lines from the late rapper Guru stated, “Experience, the best teacher…”. As fans, we need to understand that young teams will make mistakes. The key is to learn from the mistakes and use that experience. It’s these experiences that will forge what the Thunder will do in the postseason this season, and what they will do in seasons to come.

Trading Deadline and the Thunder

Business transactions are always about needs versus assets. And that’s what trades in professional sports are.  A GM will assess their team and see what is needed and what can be given up. Sam Presti, the GM for the Oklahoma City Thunder, has made his bread and butter in the previous 5 seasons by taking advantage of other teams’ needs for financial relief. It’s how he obtained Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook, and the draft pick that became Serge Ibaka. He did this by meticulously managing his cap space and not making hasty free agent/trade decisions.

Now that the Thunder are done with the rebuilding process, and are currently in the championship building phase of their development, some of the things that Presti used to swing advantageous deals are no longer available. The Thunder are currently $900K over the salary cap, meaning that they can’t absorb contracts, and must instead match salaries up to 125%. As ironic as it sounds, a negative of being frugal and careful with your spending, is that the Thunder are not saddled with any bad contract, which can become very advantageous in their expiring years.

Needs

  • With the loss of Eric Maynor earlier in the season, the Thunder lost one of the best game managers (backup or starting) in the game. He was the ultimate yin to Russell Westbrook’s yang, and provided the Thunder with a stabilizing force at the point guard position whenever necessary. Now, in his place, is a rookie, Reggie Jackson, who has looked every bit the part of a rookie. His play, while improving, has been inconsistent, as he is still trying to find his comfort zone on this championship caliber team. Kind of a tall order for someone who wasn’t expected to be thrust into such an important position at this moment in his young career. Because of Jackson’s inconsistent play, a quality backup point guard has suddenly become a need for the Thunder.
  • The thing about a wing oriented team is that if the shots aren’t falling and the “box and 1” defense is working, it makes it nearly impossible to consistently score points. The Thunder are lucky to have such dynamic scorers like Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Westbrook. These players have made their careers by consistently hitting shots with hands in their faces. But in basketball, the closer you are to the basket, the more efficient and easier your scoring becomes. And the Thunder have never had a low post scoring threat. It’s one of those things that makes scoring in the playoffs a whole lot easier.

Realistic Assets

  1. Nazr Mohammed – $3.75 Million – Veteran big man that could fit in on a contender that needs size.
  2. Cole Aldrich – $2.29 Million – 2nd year big man that has shown improvement and could be a good rotational big, if not for the Thunder, than for another team.
  3. Thabo Sefolosha – $3.3 Million – Veteran wing who is still one of the better wing defenders in the league.
  4. Royal Ivey – $1.2 Million – Veteran guard who provides good energy off the bench.
  5. Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick (obtained in the Byron Mullens trade) – Charlotte probably isn’t going to get much better next season and that pick will probably be in the 30-35 range, where a good player can still be picked up.
  6. OKC’s 2012 1st round pick – Will probably be in the 25 – 30 range of the first round. Late in the first, but still useful for stashing an overseas pick or rebuilding.

Possible trade partners (based on need and cost of transaction):

Boston  – Keyon Dooling ($2.25 M) and Marquis Daniels ($854 K) for Nazr Mohammed. Boston is in desperate need for big men after the losses of Jeff Green, Jermaine O’Neal, and Chris Wilcox. Keyon would provide a veteran point guard that has played in the playoffs before. Daniels would more than likely be cut.

New Jersey – Sundiata Gaines ($854 K) for Charlottes 2013 2nd round pick – Gaines has quietly put up a good season as a backup point guard for the New Jersey Nets.

New York – Mike Bibby ($854 K) for OKC’s 2013 2nd round pick – With the emergence of Jeremy Lin and the return of Baron Davis from injury, Mike Bibby is no longer necessary in New York.

Cleveland – Ramon Sessions ($4.3 M) for Nazr Mohammed and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick – Compared to other teams’ offers, this is probably a “No” for Cleveland, but it’s still worth a try.

Milwaukee – Andrew Bogut ($12 M) for Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook, and OKC’s 2012 1st round pick – Bogut is just as good defensively as Perkins, while providing a lot more offense, if necessary. The Bucks will probably want either Harden or Serge Ibaka, which would make this a deal breaker for the Thunder.

New Orleans – Greivis Vasquez ($1.11 M) for Lazar Hayward and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick – New Orleans is in full rebuild mode and looking to acquire quality draft picks. A very high 2nd round pick would do just that. The question becomes how does New Orleans view Vasquez?

Charlotte – DJ Augustine ($3.2 M) for Nazr Mohammed and Lazar Hayward – I don’t understand Charlotte’s desire to trade Augustine, as Kemba Walker is still a rookie and is more undersized SG than starting PG at this point in his career. But, if they want to, we’ll participate if the cost is not too much.

Free Agent – Anthony Carter (formerly of the Toronto Raptors) was recently waived to give him the opportunity to sign with a contender. Using our Disabled Player Exception from the Maynor injury, which comes out to $758,340, we could sign Carter for the rest of the season.

And just for fun:

Orlando – Dwight Howard ($18.1 M) and Ish Smith ($762 K) for Kendrick Perkins, James Harden, Eric Maynor, Cole Aldrich, OKC’s 2012 1st round pick, and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick. I don’t know if Orlando gets a better infusion of young talent and draft picks from any other team.

What does the team look like on Thursday at 3:01 PM?

I think we stay pat. Making reactionary moves is not Presti’s style. He knows we still have Maynor next season and Jackson will have gained an invaluble amount of experience in his rookie season. A smaller scale signing, like Anthony Carter will be possible, though.

The Negative Effects of Clutch

CLUTCH. A word that can define careers in the NBA, especially if you are labeled a superstar. A word that can make you the most feared player on the court for the opponent, or the biggest liability for your team. It’s a term that has no gray area. Either you are clutch or you are not. When Lebron James passed the ball to Udonis Haslem for the game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz a week ago, we didn’t anticipate that Haslem would make that shot. Not that Haslem is a horrible player. He usually sinks those mid-range jumpers. But he’s not a superstar. The guy that passed him the ball is a superstar and it has been his modus operandi for the past 2 seasons to shrink in those high pressure situations during those waning seconds of close games. The words “not clutch” have been following James around for the past few seasons like the stench when you unknowingly step in dog poop. And yet, his team has succeeded to the point where they reached the NBA Finals last season, and are one of the top 3 teams in the league this season. But that loss in the Finals, which kept the Heat from starting their string of winning, “not 5, not 6, not 7…” titles, can be partially blamed on James’s lack of “clutchness”.

It’s easy to see how not being clutch can be a detrimental to team success. But can being too clutch also be a detriment? Now, mind you, I understand how oxymoronic that sounds. How can being able to perform in high pressure situations be a detriment to a team? If a team constantly performs when all the chips are on the table, then that team should be in pretty good shape. Case in point: the Oklahoma City Thunder and their last 5 games.

As Steven Tyler of Aerosmith would say, the Thunder are literally “living on the edge” in the last 5 games. Its one of those runs where the team could easily be 0 – 5, just like it could be 5 – 0. Instead, the Thunder find themselves at 4 – 1 since the All Star Break and building on their lead at the top of the Western Conference. Here’s a look at the key 2nd halves in each of those games and how the Core 4 (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka) performed:

Opponent Largest   Deficit/Quarter/Score at the time of deficit Durant’s 4th   qtr Stat Line Westbrook’s   4th qtr Stat Line Harden’s 4th   qtr Stat Line Ibaka’s 4th   qtr Stat Line
@ Philly (W) 8 / 4th   /66 – 74 10 pts / 3 rebs / 1 ast /1 stl 2 pts / 2   rebs /1 ast 7 pts / 3   rebs 2 pts / 2 rebs /1 blk /1 stl
@ Orlando   (W) 11 / 4th   / 72 – 83 18 pts / 5   rebs 4 pts / 2   asts 8 pts / 3   rebs / 2 asts Donuts
@ Atlanta   (L) 8 / 4th   /79 – 87 6 pts / 2   rebs 2 pts / 1   ast 3 pts / 2   rebs /1 ast 1 reb / 1 blk
Dallas (W) 7 / 3rd   / 45 – 52 6 pts /2   rebs 5 pts / 2   rebs 14 pts / 2   asts 2 pts / 2   rebs / 1 blk
Phoenix(W) 16 / 3rd   / 68 – 84 12 pts / 2 rebs / 1 asts / 2 stls 9 pts / 1   ast 8 pts / 1   reb / 1 ast 2 pts / 8   rebs /1 blk

 

While this style of basketball makes for great fun as a fan, especially if you are winning most of the time, it also paints a conflicted picture in the Thunder’s outlook for the postseason. Two trains of thoughts come into play when a team is winning in this fashion. The first is that the team is learning how to win close games and is showing the ability to come back from 2nd half deficits. The second is that, come playoff time, constantly falling behind in the first half to elite teams will be the coup de grace to this year’s championship aspirations. Which train of thought is correct?

The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. As a young team, it’s necessary to build the fortitude to be able to come from behind and win. If you’ve never experienced having to recover from a sizeable deficit, then you may choke if the situation arises in the playoffs. But you also don’t want to make it a habit of constantly falling behind your opponents in the first half. It’s almost like the team goes into a mode where they say, “let’s keep the score somewhere around 10 entering the 4th quarter and we have a chance.” While it’s a luxury to have not one, but two great clutch players (Durant and Westbrook), there can come a time where the natural effect of statistics takes hold and they both have a bad second half. You just hope it isn’t in an elimination game in the playoffs