Monthly Archives: October 2012

Mr. Harden’s Opus

So I had this blog detailing why I didn’t think the Oklahoma City Thunder would sign James Harden by the October 31st deadline. I was going to work on it this weekend and publish it on Monday. I was hoping Harden and the team would still be in negotiations by the time I finished said blog. I truly believed the negotiations would be an issue that would be shelved until next offseason when the front office had more information (an entire season’s worth) to make more of an informed decision. Instead, with the OU/Notre Dame tied at 13 in the 4th quarter, I checked my twitter feed and saw this inconspicuous tweet:

Wow #Harden

I don’t remember who the tweet was from. But it piqued my curiosity and I clicked on the hash tag. I thought it was going to be a person that was surprised Harden had turned down a 4 year/ $52 million dollar contract extension. Instead, to my complete and utter surprise/horror, I started seeing the all the tweets about Harden being traded to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. The “Whhhhaaaatttttt???!!!” I let out startled my wife into rushing out of the kitchen to see what the hell was going on. The rest of the OU game was a blur to me after that. I went into Twitter frenzy mode and didn’t stop until after midnight. Once the shock and awe of it wore off (which most of it hasn’t), I was able to process the trade and evaluate it.

Here are the details from the trade:

Houston gets SG James Harden, C Cole Aldrich, SG Daequan Cook, and SF Lazar Hayward

Oklahoma City gets SG Kevin Martin, G/F Jeremy Lamb, 2013 first round pick (from Toronto, top 3 protected), 2013 first round pick (from Dallas), and 2013 second round pick (from Charlotte)

Here are some of the thoughts I have about it. I call this my “Mr. Harden’s Opus.”

The Good

My first option would have been to keep the Thunder nucleus together. But if you are going to trade Harden, this was probably the perfect batch of expiring contract, promising rookie, and draft picks galore. Let’s start with the big name from Houston: Kevin Martin. If you are going to find a substitute teacher for Harden, Martin is probably the best one year prospect available. An effective scorer who has averaged 18.4 points per game for his career, with a great mid-range game and an effective 3-point shot (38%). Someone who goes to the free throw line 6.6 times per game for his career. Defensively, Martin may not be as big as Harden, but it isn’t like Harden was in line for the All-Defense team, either. Both are sieves on the perimeter, but Harden is able to bang with bigger bodies like Kobe Bryant and Stephen Jackson. The one thing Harden really has on Martin is his play-making ability.

If the Thunder plan on bringing Martin off the bench, this plays out perfectly for them. With Eric Maynor back, Martin won’t need to take Harden’s place as a play-maker on the second team. Martin could be the gunner off the bench and the Thunder could use him in late game situations if offense is needed. For all the talk about Martin being a selfish player, he has never played with players of the caliber of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. The focus will be off Martin and he can do what he does best, which is score from the perimeter and get to the line.

The second, lesser known name in the trade was rookie Jeremy Lamb. This, in my opinion, will determine whether this trade will be viewed as a success or a failure. Lamb has the skill set and potential to be that dual threat shooting guard that the Thunder have been coveting in their championship run. Someone, potentially, with the length, athleticism, and defensive ability of Thabo Sefolosha, but also with the scoring and shooting ability of James Harden. Jeremy Lamb could prove to be that kind of player. With Martin in the mix for at least one season, Lamb can sit and learn this season without the pressure of being a starter.

The draft picks were probably what sealed the deal on this trade. Getting a good veteran with an expiring contract like Martin, and a rookie dripping with potential, like Lamb are things that many teams could have offered. But not many teams could have offered that and a slew of draft picks like Houston could. The Thunder, as weird as this sounds, are a championship contending team that got younger and obtained great assets. The Toronto pick will be a great trade chip going forward, as the Raptors are not expected to improve much from where they were last season. The 2nd round pick from Charlotte will also be valuable as it will probably be one of the first few picks from the 2nd round.

The Bad

According to sources, the final offer the Thunder made to Harden was in the 4 years / $55.5 million dollar range. Harden will probably end up signing with Houston for 4 years / $60 million dollars. You mean to tell me the difference between a potential dynasty with an established core, and completely blowing up a team 5 days before its season opener is $4.5 million dollars. That difference amounts to $1.125 million per season. The ownership group, which has made a commitment to all of its core players, could not come up with $4.5 million dollars more? This group of multi-millionaires and billionaires were panicking over an extra $1.125 million per year. Don’t get me wrong, though. I understand it is their money and not mines. But, keeping this core intact for at least another 4 years would almost certainly guarantee runs to the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals in that allotted time. Those extra games means about $20-40 million dollars extra in profit for the ownership group. You can talk about cap flexibility and assets until you are blue in the face, but when you have the potential to win championships in the here and now, AND you’re making money, you take those chances.

The scariest part about this trade is that a championship contending team was blown up less than a week before the start of the season when it didn’t need to be. We just went through 7 preseason games with our normal core intact, and now we only have 4 days worth of practice time to integrate 2, and possibly more, pieces to our team. When, in the minds of the front office personnel, did they say, “You know, this sounds like a great idea.” While the linchpin of this trade may have been Harden, Cole Aldrich may prove to be a big loss for the Thunder. He seemed ready to assume the role of back up center, getting 2 double-doubles in the preseason. Now, we are heading into the season with Hasheem Thabeet as our backup center. Granted, Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and possibly, Perry Jones III can all play the 5 in a pinch. But in a future playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, or Los Angeles Lakers, having an inexperienced and oft maligned center as a back up could prove to be detrimental.

The Ugly

Can someone tell me why the hell we had a lockout last season? All I heard during the lockout was about the percentage of the revenue that the players got and how salaries had gotten out of hand. Some even tabbed it as the “Rashard Lewis” lockout, with Lewis being the best example of a 2nd or 3rd tier player that received a max extension, thus limiting the cap flexibility of that team for up to 5 seasons. Basically, it was a lockout to keep the owners from actually overspending their profitabilities. So, then, why are teams paying players like Eric Gordon, Roy Hibbert, and James Harden max extension money. I thought max money was for top 10 players like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. Instead teams are throwing around stupid money for 2nd tier players. There’s 5 years left until the owners and players can revisit the CBA, and believe me, it will be revisited again, and this time, I fear, with dire consequences.

WWJD – What would James do?

Do you know who I’m not mad at for this trade? James Harden. Before the OU game on Saturday, I spent the whole afternoon thinking about University of South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who had just suffered a gruesome right knee injury. If you haven’t seen it, just think of Shaun Livingston’s knee injury from 5 years ago. Reports are coming out that Lattimore tore a couple ligaments and completely dislocated his kneecap. To make matters worse for Lattimore, he was coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered the previous season. If Lattimore was a stock and NFL teams were the buyers, he would currently be considered a toxic asset.

In a profession where your best years are in your mid to late 20’s, your earning potential is contingent on 5-7 years of performance and luck. If you suffer an injury or get involved in a legal scandal, your earning potential will go down. You, as an athlete, cannot dictate what the market will pay for you. If the market wants to pay you max money, then that’s what they pay. If they want to pay you veteran minimum money, then that is what you will get paid. I don’t blame Harden for taking what the market gives him.

As I wrote in my Pippen/Westbrook column, Pippen consistently took less than his market value to keep the core of the Bulls team together. Where did that leave him? Broke (most of it his fault, but still) and bitter. Harden could have taken a couple million less than what the market had placed his value at, but why. While we like to moralize athletics into this great teaching tool where you sacrifice for the greater good, at the end of the day, its a business. If a player can’t perform anymore, the owner is going to let that player go and move onto the next able body. It’s a business and a player would be a fool to leave money on the table.

I’m the Oklahoma City Thunder blogger for the blogging network called Hoops Talk Nation through the website www.thebreakdownshow.com. I currently blog on there for free. But if ESPN, YahooSports, or CBSSports ever called to offer me a spot on their blogging network for cash, I would take it in a heart beat. While I love the opportunity that Audley Stephenson and Dave Mendonca have afforded me, I wouldn’t be able to turn down the possibility of blogging AND earning cash to do it. Regardless of how I fancy myself as a blog writer, I would never turn down the opportunity to move up on the pay scale.

OKC fans should not hold this against James Harden. This is a business, and him turning down less money is a business decision. He is doing what he feels is best for himself and his family. Not unlike what we do everyday, but with less zeroes attached to it. Many will be mad for what they perceive was a lie from Harden with all the “sacrifice and brotherhood” talk. What did you expect from him? To come out and say, “I don’t give a shit what you think I’m worth. If the market says I’m a max player, I want max money!”

Being a fan is an emotional experience. When you mix emotion and money, you don’t make sound decisions. So, if you take the emotion out of the equation, you’d realize that James Harden did the same thing you and I would’ve done, which is to never leave 7.5% of a raise on the table.

The Trade and the Thunder

Well, what’s done is done. The NBA is not going to step in and rescind this trade, as Harden does not suffer from any pre-existing toe injuries or heart ailments. He is a Houston Rocket. And so are Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward. We cannot worry about them anymore.

What we do have are two unique players and 2 roster spots to fill. I think Kevin Martin will slide in seamlessly into Harden’s role off the bench. His efficient scoring and knack for getting to the line will have Thunder fans wondering whether James Harden shaved his beard, lost some weight, and slightly bleached his skin. The real prize in this trade could be Jeremy Lamb. If, in an alternate basketball universe, the basketball DNAs of James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha were interwoven, the result could be a player like Lamb. A 6’5” shooting guard with a 7’0 wing span and the ability to knock down long jumpers and play in transition. If you thought the Thunder were good with the Sefolosha/Harden SG platoon, imagine if only one player supplied most of those needs. There’s still a lot of development that needs to take place, but the skill set is already in place.

The open roster spots are a different story. The Thunder not only traded their 6th man of the year, but also their back up center, their designated 3-point specialist, and their designated end of the bench guy. While Hayward won’t be that difficult to replace, Aldrich and Cook could. I fully expect the Thunder to sign Daniel Orton to a minimum deal to compete with Hasheem Thabeet for back-up center minutes. The final roster spot is a bit of a mystery, though. Before training camp started, the Thunder signed Georgetown sharp shooter Hollis Thompson to a non-guaranteed 3 year contract. After playing in only 2 preseason games, he was one of the final roster cuts by the Thunder. They could sign him as a future replacement for Cook. Or, they could leave that roster spot open for future options, such as taking on a salary in a trade, or signing a veteran free agent (Derek Fisher, anyone?).

As for the core players, I’m curious to see how Nick Collison will react. He and Harden had one of the top 5 pick and roll combos in the league. Collison is one of the consummate professionals in the league and will be fine no matter what situation he is placed in. I think the onus of this transition will fall mainly on Russell Westbrook. If Westbrook continues to be consistent, as he was this preseason, then the Thunder should be fine. But if there was one player that helped Russell when he got into Honey Badger mode, it was Harden. Harden would take over the point guard duties and become the primary play-maker, especially at the end of games. That role now falls primarily in the hands of Westbrook, and to a lesser extent, Eric Maynor. While Maynor could fill the role of play-maker at the end of games, no defense will respect Maynor’s ability to drive and draw fouls like they did Harden’s. Martin could always be inserted at the end of games, but his play-making ability may be less than Westbrook’s.

How does this change affect the Thunder? They have never had to deal with a core-rattling trade like this one. The Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins trade shook the tree, but it was necessary given that Green was out of position at the 4 spot and affecting the team’s post defense. This trade wasn’t necessary for anything on the floor. Instead, it was a financial deal the team made to avoid paying costs in the future. The biggest negative in all of this is that it happened 5 days before the first game of the regular season. There will be no preseason games to indoctrinate the new players. Only a couple practices and then on to the season. The only positive I see in this situation is that our biggest threat, the Los Angeles Lakers, are also having to work out chemistry issues, after bringing in 2 main cogs (Dwight Howard and Steve Nash) in the offseason. The Western Conference may come down to whoever vibes first.

I do think this affects us this season. These guys just went from going to the Finals, then to the Olympics, then through training camp and preseason thinking they were going to defend their Western Conference title without a hitch. Then, BOOM!!! Over a quarter of the team gone, with 2 new pieces coming back. This is a team that is used to consistency. This consistency is what fostered to current Thunder culture. Consistency leads to comfort. Comfort leads to confidence. If you were part of the culture, you were part of the brotherhood. Now a shred of that is gone. I do think it will take the team a while to adjust from this one. Has their championship window closed? No, it hasn’t closed, but somebody definitely threw a baseball through it. The Thunder may come out stronger in the end, but I think it will be a case of one step backwards, two steps forward.

 In Memoriam

I will miss the Beard. Harden became a part of the fan culture. When you mentioned the characters on the team, you always had to mention Harden and his Beard. If the Thunder had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-like quartet, Harden was definitely Michaelangelo (the party dude!). I wish him nothing but the best in Houston. But if we are being honest, Harden was but a great role player. He scored when called upon, drove and drew fouls when needed, and made plays at will. But I never considered him to have the “it” to be The Man. Westbrook has that dogged “it” to be The Man. Durant is The Man. But Harden just seemed happy doing what needed to be done. So if Harden wants to see how his life will be post-Thunder, he need look no further than the man he was traded for.

Westbrook and The Boost

This past week, Russell Westbrook signed with Jordan Brand, after being with Nike for the first 4 years of his career. While Westbrook has carved out his own following of fans, he’s always been known as Kevin Durant’s sidekick. The Robin to Durant’s Batman. This generation’s ultimate second banana. There hasn’t been a sidekick this good since Scottie Pippen. But, Pippen never received the boost in popularity that Westbrook is about to receive.

What qualifies for a sidekick? A sidekick has to be a rookie or a very young player that is brought in after the primary player is established to specifically fill the needs the team is missing. Another qualification is that the pairing has to be together for 5+ seasons. For example, Scottie Pippen was obtained by the Chicago Bulls in a draft day deal, while already having an established superstar in Michael Jordan. Russell Westbrook was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics (Oklahoma City Thunder) after they already had an established young star in Kevin Durant. Anfernee Hardaway almost made it to great sidekick status, but injuries and Shaquille O’Neal’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers negated that possibility. The Lebron James/Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh mash-up wouldn’t qualify as sidekicks because they were all alpha males on their respective teams before they joined forces. Kobe Bryant and the aforementioned O’Neal made a great duo, but they were brought onto the Lakers the same year and often quibbled over who was the alpha male. 

To understand the road Westbrook is on, it is important to see what happened to Pippen throughout his career. When Pippen first started college at the University of Central Arkansas, he was a 6’1” walk-on that needed to moonlight as the team’s manager to pay his tuition costs. After 3 more collegiate seasons, a 7 inch growth spurt, and consensus All-NAIA player honors, Pippen was drafted with the 5th overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft to the Seattle Supersonics (who subsequently traded him to the Chicago Bulls). The scouting report on him read as follows:

  • 7’4” wingspan and a 41” vertical
  • Strong outside, but needs work inside
  • Not bad driving to the hoop, but doesn’t look to drive
  • Good foul shooter
  • Can make a three
  • Terrific passer at that position
  • Won’t give you much of anything on the offensive glass, and is a so-so defensive rebounder
  • Excellent defensively and a disruptive force in the passing lanes
  • Good ball handler, but commits a ton of turnovers
  • Could start on most teams

Not necessarily the sexiest of scouting reports for someone who would eventually become one of the top 50 players in league history. While Pippen built his legacy on defense, he was also an apt offensive player, becoming the archetype for the point forward position. During his prime (1989-1999), Pippen had per game averages of 19.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.9 blocks. Not necessarily the offensive prowess that Larry Bird possessed, but with a stat line like that, Pippen should have been heralded as his generation’s defensive Larry Bird. Instead, he was teamed up with arguably the greatest player of any generation in Michael Jordan. There usually isn’t a lot of spotlight left when you are playing with the greatest. Ask 100 people who the lead singer of Aerosmith is, and most will answer Steven Tyler. Ask them who the drummer is, and not many will know the answer.

Pippen’s play on the court should have spurred him to more shoe deals, more advertisement contracts, and more widespread popularity. And yet, when his career was all said and done, you couldn’t help but wonder whether Pippen got everything that was owed to him. There were the stories of how Pippen felt he wasn’t getting paid what he deserved (which he wasn’t). There were the rumors that he felt slighted being outside of the limelight, when he provided so much to the team. While he did have his own shoe line (the PIPs) from Nike, they only lasted about two series. So, needless to say, not many companies bought into Scottie Pippen.

It wasn’t Jordan’s fault, though. Most of the blame lies squarely on Pippen. He didn’t have the same tact with the media that Jordan did. He was dismissive and defensive at times with reporters. Then there were the crunch time situations. Those critical times in games that live in lore and become mythologized. It’s not that Pippen didn’t perform well during those times. On the contrary, he performed great during crunch time. But he’s instead remembered for the times he quit on his team in the most critical of moments. There was the time he sat out Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons with a migraine headache. The Bulls eventually lost that game. Probably the most damning, though, was the one where he sat out the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks because Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot, instead of Pippen. To make matters worse, Kukoc actually hit the game winner. This one was the most damaging because it came at a time when the Bulls were his team due to Jordan’s hiatus into baseball. When you are known to quit on your team during crucial periods, your popularity takes a big hit.

Which brings us to the best sidekick of this generation, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Like Pippen, Westbrook was not highly decorated coming out of college. Like Pippen, Westbrook was drafted by a team that already had a young star in Kevin Durant. Like Pippen, Westbrook is seen as not being very media friendly. Coincidentally, Durant, much like Jordan, is viewed as a media favorite. And, while not by his own doing, Russell was also involved in a critical game snafu, when Thunder coach Scott Brooks sat an ineffective Westbrook for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conferences Finals.

But, not everything is negative when it comes to Pippen and Westbrook. Both of these players are insanely loyal to their teams and teammates. Pippen had a couple opportunities to seek greener pastures during the championship run, but decided to sign for less to stay with the Bulls. Westbrook could have done the same last season, but decided to sign for the allowable max. Both players are highly competitive, with possible chips on their shoulders from being labeled second bananas. Both players are very team oriented, as evidenced by them sacrificing a little of their own games to coexist with two great players. The good severely outweighs the bad when it comes to Westbrook and Pippen, but the bad usually has more advertising power.

Which is why I found the signing of Westbrook to Jordan brand to be a bit ironic. Not ironic in the sense that he doesn’t deserve it. But ironic in the sense that a move like this will probably propel Westbrook into superstar territory, as far as media exposure goes. Into a territory that Scottie Pippen unfortunately never reached. With an endorsement team that includes Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, and Michael Jordan, himself, Russell Westbrook will have plenty of opportunity to expand his brand. He already has a slogan in place (WhyNot?), and already has a following outside of basketball because of his unique fashion sense. In a way, Jordan is helping this generation’s top sidekick become what his sidekick should have become.

The Thunder and their Manchurian Candidate

During the offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder did something very unconventional. Instead of hiring a scout to serve as their video coordinator/analyst, they, instead, hired premier basketball video blogger Sebastian Pruiti. For those of you who don’t know who Pruiti is, he ran a website called nbaplaybook.com, in which he used clips of games to break down film and explain why a team may or may not have been successful in certain sets. Pruiti did a great job of explaining the content in a way that even the average NBA fan could understand.

His understanding of the game was not without any background. He served as a volunteer assistant coach for the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders. Then, he served as an assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League. Needless to say, the man is an astute basketball mind. One of the best basketball writers of our generation, Bill Simmons, noticed this and decided to hire Pruiti for his newly formed Grantland multimedia conglomerate. In fact, Simmons was the one that broke the news on Twitter that Pruiti had been hired by the Thunder.

The thought of a Simmons’ disciple going to the Thunder, though, got my conspiracy  mind thinking. On the one hand, Simmons has written about his disdain for how the Seattle Supersonics eventually became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not that he necessarily carries any ill regard for the team itself, but more for the process that eventually landed the team in the Great Plains. As punishment, he has yet to call the team by its current moniker in any of his writings, instead referring to them as the Zombie Sonics. On the other hand, Simmons’ crowning achievement in life would be to someday become an NBA GM. It’s a dichotomous train of thought that is one part Manchurian Candidate and one part Great Expectations.

Think about it. Before Simmons hired Pruiti, he probably kept tabs on him for years like a spy cultivating an asset. He was the best video blogging analyst in the game and worked on several basketball-related sites. As a basketball junkie, Simmons had to immediately recognize his work and his talent. One of Simmons’ most important traits as a writer is his ability to read situations before they occur. He has correctly predicted the “Ewing Theory” on many occasions, and has a keen understanding of how people will react to certain situations. These are all characteristics of a great point guard; someone who sets things in motion, directs the traffic, sees things before they happen, and makes proper adjustments whenever necessary.

I could see Simmons playing chess, while everyone else plays checkers. He knew that Thunder GM Sam Presti is very analytical and values statistics as a means to better answer questions. He also knew that Presti is young and probably very in tune with the basketball blogosphere and advanced cybermetrics. In terms of probability, there’s a lot better chance that someone like Presti or Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey would hire Pruiti, than someone like Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars or Indiana Pacers GM Donnie Walsh.

Eventually, Presti finally took the bait and hired Pruiti. And with that, Simmons finally had his Manchurian candidate in place. As George W. Bush would say, “Mission (half-way) accomplished!” As a video coordinator/analyst, Pruiti’s job is to break down every one of the Thunder’s possessions (both offensive and defensive), looking to see what works and what doesn’t work for the team. If coaching were compared to another Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, Pruiti would be the Ghost of Coaching Past and Future, while Scott Brooks would be the Ghost of Coaching Present. The information Pruiti garners from game film will help steer how the team plays in the future.

With Pruiti in the door, does he begin to show skewed video evidence to the Thunder front office suggesting a Keith Bogans for James Harden trade would be beneficial to the team? Does he show slanted video proof that Kendrick Perkins should get the ball more in late game situations? Does he systematically try to derail the team’s ascension from the inside out?

Or perhaps, the motive is completely selfish on Simmons’ part. Let’s say Pruiti climbs up the coaching ranks and gets in good with the owner of a struggling team. Who’s to say that Pruiti won’t put in a good word to the owner that Simmons is a master capologist (via ESPN’s Trade Machine, of course), a burgeoning talent evaluator, and a great judge of character? With those qualifications, which struggling team wouldn’t hire Simmons as their GM?

That would literally make Simmons, Mr. Magwich, to Pruiti’s Pip. While Simmons may have assisted Pruiti in the past and present, Pruiti may some day perform the quid pro quo for Simmons in the future. In life it’s all about your contacts and the more connections you make, the more possibilities you have. Who knows, maybe one day Sebastian Pruiti will be the Thunder’s head coach and Bill Simmons will be the Thunder’s (gulp!) GM. That would be the irony of all ironies. At least then, he would probably have to mention the Thunder by name.

Seize The Day

During Sam Presti’s “opening of training camp” press conference last week, he mentioned that starting center Kendrick Perkins would be out for the entire preseason, recovering from the 2 offseason surgeries he had on his groin and wrist. Being that Perkins is a 10 year veteran and a consummate professional, I am not at all worried about his conditioning, or whether he’ll be ready to play once the season starts. As an aside, can you believe that Perkins has already been in the league a full decade? But, in a way, I’m ecstatic that our younger centers now have a chance to prove themselves in some real game action before the season begins.

Oklahoma City’s trainer Joe Sharp and his medical staff have done a great job of keeping the Thunder players healthy, for the most part. And to their credit, the players’ quick healing and sheer stubbornness have also played a part in them hardly missing any games. With that said, I’ve always wondered how Eric Maynor would fare as the starting point guard for the Thunder in a couple games. We all know how he performed in the 4th quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in the 2011 playoffs. Was that an aberration or was it really how Maynor would perform with top notch talent consistently around him?  Not that I necessarily want to see Maynor as a starter for an extended period of time, but if Russell Westbrook were to sit out a game or two in the preseason, I wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, I would welcome it.

The biggest detriment to a young player’s development is lack of playing time. Would Darko Milicic be a better player today had he played for a lottery bound team that immediately needed him to develop, instead of being the human victory cigar for the Eastern Conference runners-up Detroit Pistons? We will never know that answer, but it serves as a cautionary tale in how teams handle their young players’ minutes. In the case of the Pistons, there just wasn’t enough room on the team for Milicic to develop on the floor. With Mehmet Okur, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess manning the front line for Detroit at different times during a 5 year championship window, there simply wasn’t enough minutes in a game to help develop a young center while still contending.

Which brings us to the three young centers on the Thunder’s preseason roster. Cole Aldrich, Hasheem Thabeet, and Daniel Orton are all trying to find their spots in the NBA. Three different stories that lead to the same two things: playing time and development. Aldrich would seem to hold the upper hand amongst the 3 centers, as he has been with the organization the longest. The 11th overall selection in the 2010 NBA draft, Aldrich has been entrenched as the team’s 3rd center behind Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. He’s shown enough in D-League stints and garbage time to keep the team intrigued with his defensive potential. With Mohammed’s departure to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason, the back-up center position is his to lose.

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself that you just have to try out. Sam Presti has always been intrigued by Hasheem Thabeet, going all the way back to the 2009 NBA draft. Thabeet was off the board by the time the Thunder selected James Harden with the 3rd pick, but Presti kept close tabs on him after that. There were always rumors of OKC trying to obtain Thabeet during the trading deadline. After 3 disappointing seasons, in which Thabeet had stints on three NBA teams and two D-League teams, the Portland Trailblazers decided not to pick up his 4th year option, thus allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent going into this offseason. Seeing the potential for a low risk, high reward player, Presti signed him to a 2 year, vet-minimum contract. The center, who is pretty mobile, despite being the tallest player in the league (7’3”), has the potential to be a disruptive force on the defensive end. The question is whether he can put all his physical attributes and talent together to be an effective NBA player.

Sometimes injuries play a part in negating a young player’s time on the court. Daniel Orton was drafted in the same year as Aldrich by the Orlando Magic as a possible back-up to Dwight Howard. After suffering a torn ACL during his senior season in high school, Orton once again suffered a season ending knee injury during his rookie season while in the D-League. After recovering in the 2010-11 season, Orton finally saw some game action in the 2011-12 season. The Magic decided not to pick up his 3rd year option, thus allowing him to enter unrestricted free agency. The Thunder decided to bring Orton in as a training camp invite to see how he fits into their system. He probably has the most untapped potential out of the 3 young centers on the team. Rumor has it that if the Thunder don’t sign Orton to a contract, they may try to keep him in their system through the Tulsa 66ers, their D-League affiliate.

The preseason will be a great opportunity for these three young players to show what they got. It may actually be their last chance to prove they are NBA-caliber players. The NBA is a league of “what have you done for me lately?” If a player hasn’t shown anything in his allotted time in the league, you can bet there is another player somewhere looking to seize the day and take that spot.