Monthly Archives: July 2012

What offseason? Basketball Never Stops!

As a fan of the game, I’ll watch any basketball game you have on the television, especially playoff games. But there’s a slight disconnect when your team is not involved. It’s not as emotionally taxing. With that said, I’ve never enjoyed basketball as a connected fan all the way into mid-June. Though I’m disappointed that we lost in the Finals, its fun to look at the calendar and know that in 3 months, training camps should begin to open up. I’ve forgotten what it feels like for the season to be over in mid-April. But this all leads us to the offseason. Time to rest and recover from the grind of the season. Oh, I forgot we have the draft coming up. And then we have Summer League. And all the offseason moves and transactions. All the while, we have the national team gearing up to defend its gold medal in this summer’s Olympics. What the hell does the off in offseason mean?

There’s a saying that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. The things that happen after the All Star break, such as trades and the signing of recently released players, can have a big impact on the rest of the season and the postseason. The Thunder have been the beneficiary of both of these player transaction moves in the past two season. Two seasons ago, at the trading deadline, the Thunder traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for starting center Kendrick Perkins and ultimate cheerleader Nate Robinson. Then, last season, they signed point guard Derek Fisher off waivers after he was released from the Houston Rockets. Due to the team’s stability, the Thunder usually remain pretty quiet during the offseason, though.

2012 NBA Draft

This offseason, though, the moves have been quiet, but plentiful. Heading into the draft, the Thunder’s only draft pick was the 28th pick in the first round. When you are picking this late in the draft, this usually means your team already has the necessary players to succeed. For a team as set as the Thunder, there wasn’t an immediate need that any player chosen this late was going to provide. One of the biggest needs the Thunder had was a big that was agile enough to defend other athletic bigs while being able to score from the outside and inside. Players with this skill set don’t usually last this long in the draft. The thinking was that the team would draft either an athletic wing or an overseas player that would be stashed in Europe for a couple of seasons.

Sometimes, though, the stars and planets align, and a player you were needing all along falls into your lap. There was always concern about Perry Jones III’s work ethic. The word ‘motor’ usually came up when his draft status was discussed. But, no one could deny the potential he had. The description of a 6’11” athletic forward that could score from outside and inside is the type of player that usually has teams salivating for his services. But a day before the draft, they were reports that many teams were concerned with the condition of his knees. After the recent knee concerns of Greg Oden and Blake Griffin proved to be true, not many teams were willing to spend a lottery pick on a player whose work ethic AND knees were called into question. Surprisingly though, 11 other teams outside of the lottery chose to pass on Jones III also. So when the Thunder’s name came up, Thunder general manager Sam Presti never hesitated, and went with the best player available, which coincidentally also filled a need. The best thing about it, though, is that it comes at an extremely cheap price.

Orlando Summer League

After the draft, the focus turned to the Orlando Summer League, where the Thunder were participating with 7 other NBA teams. As I wrote previously, the Summer League is full of good young players, Fringers, and Dreamers. Some of the players are already guaranteed a spot on an NBA roster and just want to mix in some team-oriented scrimmages and practices during the offseason. Most of the players though, are clawing and scratching for an opportunity to get onto an NBA roster. The Thunder’s roster consisted of 4 guys that, barring a trade, will be on the Thunder’s opening day roster (Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, Lazar Hayward, and Cole Aldrich). The rest of the players were probably not going to make it onto the Thunder’s roster, but could make an impression on another team depending on how they played.

The Thunder finished the Orlando Summer League 3-2. Reggie Jackson played like the most seasoned guy on the team controlling the tempo of the offense and attacking the basket at will. He even gave 2012 NBA Dunk champ Jeremy Evans a taste of his own medicine. Lazar Hayward showed why he’ll be at the end of an NBA bench for the next couple of years. He does a lot of things good, but nothing great. Cole Aldrich’s play was mediocre, at best. For a player that is looking to step up and be the back up center, his lack of improvement was a bit alarming. But, I would ask people to please step off the ledge when it comes to Aldrich’s development. Summer league games are made for wing players. They are glorified street games with refs and NBA assistant coaches on the sidelines. Aldrich will be asked to defend the paint, set picks, and put up a couple hook shots in the regular season. He will be fine. Perry Jones III suffered a sprained ankle in the 2nd half of the 2nd game, but not before impressing with his array of inside/outside skills. He will be in the Thunder’s regular rotation, if not in the 2nd half of this season, then definitely in the 2013-14 season. Other notables were forward Latavious Williams, who needs to be on an NBA roster somewhere, and Garrett Temple, whose play was almost veteran-like.

Off-season Moves

The Thunder has never been a big player in free-agency in their time in Oklahoma City. But in reality, they’ve never had to be a big player. Their main focus has always been on player development. When you have players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, that’s what you put most of your focus on. That came to fruition in the last two seasons with consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals and a trip to the NBA Finals this past season. The Thunder had 3 players that were coming up on free agency and all of them were veterans. Nazr Mohammed, Derek Fisher, and Royal Ivey could have all been signed to cheap veteran deals. But due to their years of employment in the league, even their minimum salaries would have been upwards of $1.5 million. The Thunder chose instead to let those vets walk, and focus on cheaper, younger alternatives. With Perry Jones III signing his rookie contract, that left 2 more spots on the roster.

The Thunder signed much maligned center Hasheem Thabeet to a 2-year veteran minimum contract. Now the difference between Thabeet’s veteran minimum deal and any of the other 3 Thunder players that were up for an extension, is that Thabeet has only been in the league for 3 seasons. For the final roster spot, the Thunder signed undrafted free agent Hollis Thompson from Georgetown to a 3 year contract. Thompson is a sharp-shooter in the Thunder mold (tall and long) that could be a cheap replacement for Daequan Cook in upcoming seasons.

The two signings sent Thunder nation into a tizzy, and not for good reasons. Most were questioning the “lackluster” moves by the team, while the team that beat us in the Finals picked up former All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and one of our biggest threats in the West, the Lakers, picked up a former 2-time MVP (Steve Nash) in their biggest position of weakness (point guard) without giving up a single player. The thinking was that the curse of the small market team was starting to take hold of the Thunder. That the ideology that small market teams can’t attract free agents and can’t spend money like the big boys was starting to rear its ugly head.

I, for one, completely disagree with that thinking. While it would be nice to sign former All-Stars ad-nauseam every offseason, the reality is that that would be bad business in this new NBA. The goal is to try and keep cost down while maintaining a competitive team. If your team does spend into the luxury tax territory, it better be winning. The Thunder have the right components in place to continue winning. The moves they made this offseason were made to keep those components in place. When you start talking about the luxury tax, every dollar counts. And if the Thunder are truly looking to keep both James Harden and Serge Ibaka on the same team as Durant and Westbrook, they are going to have to continue making these cost effective moves. Both Harden and Ibaka will demand deals that get them at least $10+ million per season. And, rightfully so. We’ll be in the luxury tax no matter what, if we keep these 4 players. The payments get more feasible, though, if you are competing for and winning championships.

Another thing that these signings do is maintain the flexibility that Presti loves. These signings not only have low cost-high reward potential, but they are also short term deals. That way, the team isn’t saddled with long-term contracts if the player, in question, either gets injured or doesn’t produce. Also, if someone better comes along, you could cut your losses with the player and attempt to obtain the better option. Cap flexibility is a commodity in the NBA, and Presti is one of the best at maintaining it.

Team USA

As if this offseason hasn’t been crazy enough, you have Team USA preparing for the Olympics in London. Not only that, but the Thunder has 4 representatives in the Olympics (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden for Team USA, and Serge Ibaka for Spain). Durant and Westbrook were near locks to make the team, but Harden was actually a surprise addition after players like Dwayne Wade and Derrick Rose bowed out because of injury. The team torched the Dominican Republic and eeked out a victory against a tough Brazil squad in the US leg of pre-tournament games. After this, it’s across the pond for a couple friendlies and then the real thing. Durant has a possibility of leading the team in scoring, while Westbrook will be the defensive pitbull/offensive sparkplug off the bench. Harden will probably play a role similar to what he does with the Thunder, but to a smaller degree.

As a fan of the game, I love this. Before NBA-TV, the offseason was usually a time to hear about a trade or two, and wait for football season to start. So, even though, this has been a whirlwind offseason, I still appreciate it. When this offseason gets too crazy, I always hark back to the 2011 offseason. Oh, you don’t remember the 2011 offseason? Oh, thats right, because there wasn’t an offseason that year.

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Summer League: Hope Springs Eternal

One of my favorite things about the offseason is Summer League. Everything is so optimistic during this time of year. That late 2nd rounder you got from another team for cash considerations? Of course he’s going to become a 3-time All Star for you. The combo guard you took with the 27th pick? You’d be crazy not to think he’s isn’t going to average 20 ppg this upcoming season. The 2nd year player who sat at the end of the bench all of his rookie season, and was the team’s honorary “human victory cigar”? Yep, he’s going to make the leap. Everything about Summer League is based on potential and hope.

In reality though, 80% of the players in Summer League will never get a whiff of the NBA. If you follow your team as voraciously as I do, you’ll learn the players’ names and then forget them just as quickly when Summer League ends. The only ones that stick in my mind are the ones that actually make the team, and the ones that end up with the Thunder’s D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers. And it truly is a shame, because for 99% of us fans, these players are just advancing to a point in their basketball careers that we could only dream of advancing to. There really are some good basketball players in Summer League, but like any other situation in life, if they are not cultivated in the right system, they go to waste. 

That’s why I love cheering for the Thunder during Summer League. This is a team that takes pride in cultivating players and rewarding them for their hard work and dedication. In 2011, Robert Vaden, our 2009 2nd round pick, was signed to play the final week of the season and was added to the playoff roster for the Thunder. Did he ever play an actual game for the Thunder? No, but he got to practice with the team, sit on the bench in a suit,  and cash a couple paychecks signed by Clayton Bennett and David Stern. Last season, our 2nd round pick from 2010, a little known forward from Florida State named Ryan Reid was signed at the beginning of the season. He actually played in a couple games and averaged 1.6 points. 

This year’s squad features a guy the team is grooming to become the back-up center (Cole Aldrich), a guy they are grooming to possibly become the back-up point guard one day (Reggie Jackson), a guy who could be an asset if injuries ravage the team (Lazar Hayward), and a rookie they are grooming to possibly become a rotational big someday (Perry Jones III). These players are locks to be on the opening day roster, barring any trades. They are in town to either sharpen their skills or test new skills. 

The other guys, the ones I like to call the Fringers, are usually just on the outside looking in. Back on the Thunder squad is Ryan Reid, trying to make it back to the NBA after being cut in the middle of last season to make room for seasoned veteran Derek Fisher. Another guy battling for a roster spot is Latavious Williams. This athletic forward made a bit of history in 2009, becoming the first high schooler to be drafted straight out of high school into the NBA Developmental League. The next season, when he became eligible to be drafted into the NBA, he was selected by the Miami Heat in the 2nd round, and was immediately traded to the Thunder. After playing one more season in the D-League, Williams signed to play for FIATC Joventud in Spain last season, winning Most Spectacular Player of the ACB League. Another player trying to get back into the league is Morris Almond, who is something of an NBDL superstar, but has never quite put it all together in the NBA. Basically, 3 guys possibly battling for one roster spot. 

Then, there are the Dreamers. The guys we should all be cheering for, because they remind us of our short lived hoop dreams. Kent Bazemore, Dwight Buycks, Marquez Haynes, John Holland, James Mays, Gary McGhee, and Garrett Temple. Remember those names, because you probably won’t hear of them ever again. Is there a chance some of them will make it as end of the bench guys in the league? Sure. And they’ll probably have a great story to tell about their journey to the NBA. But for the most parts, these guys will fade into overseas and D-League rosters. 

Such is the life of most professional basketball players. Always remember, that professional doesn’t just mean NBA. The players that play in the Philippines for pay are also considered professionals. As are the ones that play in Iran. And the ones in Mexico. The road in the journey to do something you love isn’t always paved in gold and silver. And it very rarely is a straight line. So I commend and salute the Fringers and the Dreamers for doing what they love, even if the road is full of potholes and roadblocks. So keep on hooping, gentlemen, because if many of us were given that opportunity, we’d be doing the same thing.

A BIG Thank You

Throughout my lifetime as an NBA fan, I’ve never anticipated an NBA season more than I did this one. I, honestly, don’t know the reason why, though. Maybe it was the fact that the team I am civically connected to was a title contender. Maybe it was an appreciation of an NBA season almost lost. Maybe it was the fact that I was more intimately involved in the game this season than any other season. Or it maybe it was a combination of all of those things. Whatever the reason, the anticipation of the season was well conceived as it turned out to be the greatest season I have ever witnessed personally. 

Now, when I say personally, I specifically mean me. You may have a differing opinion on the greatness of this season, especially if you are a fan of the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, or San Antonio Spurs. Conversely, the fans of the Miami Heat probably loved this season, also. To each their own, I guess. But the one theme that made this season stick out more than any other was FAMILY. Not just my immediate family, but also the families I became a part of throughout the season. 

It’s a funny thing about families. Sometimes we are born into them, sometimes we marry into them, and sometimes we are accepted into them. But families are the people that make things that much more enjoyable. I could have enjoyed this NBA season just fine all by myself. The addition of family, though, made it exponentially better. So as a reminder of this great season, I would like to give thanks to all the people that made this season so enjoyable for me. 

First off, to my wife and kids. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy this season and not judging the craziness of my fandom. Thank for understanding that, even though I work two jobs, I do need something to de-stress myself. Some guys throw themselves into booze; some into cars. My vice is basketball, specifically Thunder basketball. Thanks to Wifey for picking my brain about basketball to either show that she “really” is interested or to gather knowledge, even if she isn’t that big of a sports fan. Regardless, I love her for it. Thank you to my oldest for being my protégé; for learning the names and numbers of the players, and wondering why one of the white guys (Cole Aldrich) doesn’t play that much. To my middle child, for being honest and showing me that not everyone has to like sports. Thank you for showing me that Despicable Me is sometimes better than a game. And to my little one. Thank you for belting out, “Let’s Thunder Up,” every time I said, “Its game time/ Its game time.” It’s been awesome for you guys to be a part of this season. 

Thank you to my parents and sister. To my mom, the lady that introduced me to being a fan of the game. To the woman that would talk about the game with me when we would take our 3-mile treks during my childhood. There’s nothing better than watching a game with the original fan, especially when she pays for the food at the arena (a HUGE plus). There’s nothing more that I would’ve wanted than for you to be there when we won the Western Conference Championship. Maybe next year, you’ll be in town, and the tickets won’t be so difficult to obtain. Thanks to my sister, aka Westbrook’s stalker, aka Meme Queen for becoming a super fan this season. Way to Thunder Up! And to my father, thank you for not being a sports fan, but rocking the free playoff t-shirts when it comes to mowing the lawn and washing the car. You Thunder Up in your own manner, old man. 

Thanks to my partner in crime; my brother that I split my season tickets with. That 90 mile trek to the game would not be as fun without you. Every victory is that much more awesome and every loss is that much more manageable. We are the super fans in Section 315 and will continue to lead the charge. Let’s take this thing all the way to the ‘ship.  And, maybe one day, we’ll call into the post game radio show and finally get the answer as to why Etan Thomas still hasn’t gotten any playing time (inside joke). 

Now that’s blood family. But in the progression of life, we also became parts of other families, where blood is not involved. This season, I decided to toss my hat in the blogosphere of basketball. Now mind you, I’ve never been a serious writer for anything. I hated English class and despised writing essays. But I started noticing that I loved writing about basketball on my favorite OKC basketball site, http://www.thunderfans.com . I started building up my writing confidence with posts about the Hornets, Sonics, and Thunder, and eventually asked to become the front page blog writer for the site. The owner of the site gave me the opportunity and I’ve been bitten by the blog bug ever since. So, for that, I need to say thank you to my favorite forum site for the establishment of my blogging roots. 

The next step in this story was starting my own blog. This was a process in, and, of itself. I’m pretty computer saavy, but not very internet saavy. So I started my blog site, http://www.nowthatsthunderbasketball.wordpress.com , and it sat dormant for about a month. After figuring out how to log on and how to use the Word Press format, I finally started blogging. My initial thought was that I would put some of my articles on the blog site and then let some of the people on the forum site know about it. And that’s how it started. But then I located the “link to Twitter” option, and I found a better avenue to get my work out to a more diverse crowd. 

From there, I became a Twitter junkie. I’ve never been a huge fan of Facebook, but the format of Twitter really appealed to me. I started following every basketball head I could think of and started to link my blog to them. Some responded back, but most didn’t. But the purpose of Twitter started to run its course. I was beginning to get feedback from people outside of the Oklahoma City market. And that’s where I met some of the people that would become my basketball media family. 

First, I met Audley Stephenson of http://thebreakdownshow.com who was planning to start up a blogging network that featured bloggers for all 30 teams. He pitched me the idea about becoming the blogger for the Thunder for http://www.hoopstalknation.com , and I jumped at the opportunity. I don’t even think 30 seconds went by before I responded back to his direct message with a resounding YES! Honestly, I don’t know if my articles have increased any of their page views or whether any one reads my work. But what I do know is that Audley and Dave Mendonca showed enough faith in this blogging neophyte to hand me the keys to my own team and let me operate and learn on my own. For that, I will always be thankful for them. 

Thank you to my brothers and sisters on the Hoops Talk Nation blogging network. I don’t know any of you personally, but it’s been a blast talking to you guys throughout the season about the one thing that binds us all….our love for basketball. The passion for each of our respective teams is only trumped by our passions for the sport. Let’s keep this thing moving forward and achieve greater things next season. 

While it’s exciting to be involved in an international blogging network, (remember, Toronto is in the Canada, so technically, we are international) it’s always nice to be involved with a group that’s closer to home. So for that, I have to thank Josh Hastings and Mike Erwin from http://www.visitorssection.com . These two gentlemen have given me the opportunity to expand myself as a podcaster, asking me to be their Thunder correspondent while the team went on their playoff run. Again, I don’t know if my inclusion in the podcast helps them out, but I do know the opportunity and experience I have gained have been priceless. 

The final thank you goes to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a sports world where cynicism and skepticism are the words of the day, it is heart-warming to see a team that actually embraces the nuances of the community they play in, and ties their themes to the core values of the populance. Whether it’s genuine or not, shouldn’t even matter, as the leaders of the team have tapped into the soul of the city and made a product that understands “us”. Themes like “Team Is One”, “One Thunder”, and “Team is 18,203” remind us, the fans, that we are just as important to the equation as the players. And the players, surprisingly, seemed to have become awestruck and humbled by the outpouring of support from the fans. 

It’s a delicate balance that can go awry in a very short span of time. An injury here or a difficult contract negotiation there, and the empire that was being built can crumble in an instant. The goodwill can quickly change to apathy and disgust. But I will always look back at this season with a huge smile on my face. And that huge smile is largely due to all the relationships I have built or been a part of over the course of the season. Thank you!