Monthly Archives: November 2012

….The More They Remain The Same

Any time something catastrophic happens, people always measure time from that point forward. In the show “Revolution”, everything is measured from the blackout, which is the catastrophic event in the show. Similarly, anytime something shocking happens to a sports team (i.e. trade, injury, retirement, suspension, etc), everything is measured from that time for the immediate future. No matter what they tell you, Clevelanders are still thinking about Lebron and The Decision. It’ll take a nice playoff run or two from Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and the young Cavs to start to erase the time clock from their collective memory. Chicagoans have become quite adept at handling these differentiating time clocks for the past 20 years. They’ve had Michael Jordan’s first retirement, his comeback, his second retirement, and, finally, Derrick Rose’s knee injury. They are just chomping at the bit to start the Derrick Rose comeback timeclock.

The Oklahoma City Thunder experienced something very similar a month ago. On October 27, 2012, the Thunder traded James Harden, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward, and Cole Aldrich to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, 2 future first round picks, and a 2013 2nd round pick. The Thunder were just coming off a trip to the Finals with their young core just coming into its own. They had their world-class scorer in Kevin Durant, their hyper-competitive floor general in Russell Westbrook, their pogo-stick blocking machine in Serge Ibaka, and their “jack of all trades” in James Harden. All under 24 years of age at the time. THIS team was supposed to grow together and contend for the next decade. Instead, after not being able to come to terms on a long term extension, Thunder GM Sam Presti decided to pull the trigger on the trade,  and send Harden to Houston. 

The first thought amongst Thunder fans was how Martin would compare to Harden. The players, while similar in some facets, were completely different in other facets. Both were great shooters who were very adept at drawing fouls when driving to the basket. The major difference between the two players was that Harden was more of a playmaker, while Martin was more of a scorer. That major difference was of chief concern to Thunder fans because Harden was usually the go-between when Durant and Westbrook were on the floor together in the 4th quarter. When Durant and Westbrook were out there on the floor together, teams had an idea on how to guard the duo. But add Harden to that mix, and the floor spaced out like the Red Sea of Moses.  

Basketball skills aside, the primary concern was how this trade would affect the Thunder’s chemistry. This Thunder team was one that had been hardened by its experiences. The struggles of learning how to win followed by the lessons of winning when favored. It was a 180 degree turn that many teams never experience. Many teams have trotted out young talented rosters that have either failed to pan out or were destroyed from within when it was time for contract extensions. The best comparison I have for the Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka Thunder was the late 90’s Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. Eliminate one of the Triplets from that mix, and the Cowboys aren’t winning 3 Super Bowls in four seasons. This is the current dilemma facing the Thunder.

One month in, and the transition has been about as smooth as it can be when changing out key parts. There have been some transitional growing pains, but that is to be expected when a core shattering trade is made 4 days before the start of the regular season. What is important is the Martin seems to be integrating quite nicely into his role as the team’s 6th man. Luckily, the team’s schedule has been home-heavy in this early going with the opponent’s collective win percentage being under .500. On the other hand, against teams with strong playoff pedigrees, such as the Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Celtics, the team has struggled and is 1-3 against those teams. The surprising revelation is that compared to James Harden’s stat line from last season’s first 15 games, you would almost not even notice a difference.

  • Stat                                       Harden (11-12)      I       Martin (12-13)
  • Minutes per game                     30.0                              30.7
  • Points per game                       16.3                              15.9
  • Turnovers per game                  1.8                                 1.8
  • Steals per game                         0.8                                1.3
  • Blocks per game                        0.2                                 0.1
  • Assists per game                       3.1                                 1.8
  • Rebounds per game                  3.9                                 2.7
  • FT Attempts per game               6.5                                 4.6
  • FT Made per game                     5.7                                 4.4
  • FT %                                             86.7%                           94%
  • 3pt FG attempts per game          4.6                                4.9
  • 3pt FG made per game               1.7                                 2.4
  • 3pt FG %                                       36.2%                           50%
  • FG attempts per game                 9.9                                9.9
  • FG made per game                      4.5                                4.6
  • FG %                                              43%                              46%
  • TS %                                               66%                             66.5%
  • eFG %                                            58.2%                          58.3%
  • Thunder Record                            12 – 3                            11 – 4

Other than the difference in assists per game, Harden and Martin have virtually the same offensive stats. Eventually, even the assists may be a wash, as Martin has shown a willingness to become more of a playmaker. People tend to forget that Martin has been the main offensive option on most of the teams that he’s played on and has been given the green light to shoot at will. But, with teammates like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka on the floor, Martin has shown that he can find the open man for an easy bucket or two. 

Defensively, Martin has been a liability, but Harden wasn’t necessarily on his way to being named to any of the All-Defensive Teams. This first half of the season will be one lesson after another for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook have been learning on the fly how to incorporate Martin into their crunch time offense. And Martin has been learning how to be more aggressive as a bench player. Overall, the transition has gone a lot smoother than many Thunder fans had feared. With Harden coming to town on Wednesday with his new team, the cycle seems to have come full circle. The more things change…….

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Hasheem Thabeet:ReHashing a Journey

How exactly do you measure a man’s worth? Is it by his successes? If so, everyone looks great when they are succeeding. But, it’s what happens whenever a person has tasted success, fails, and then gets back up that shows the true character of that man. Some people aren’t able to come back once they have failed. Allen Iverson could have been a great redemption story. Here was a man who had tasted nothing but success since coming into the league. A man whose Frank Sinatra-like demeanor (“I did it my way”) garnered him many fans and many enemies, many of whom were in the league’s front office. A man whose ego eventually surpassed his usefulness to the point that NBA teams basically shut him out of the league. His is an example of a person who could not adapt to the slightest bit of failure.

One of the worst things in sports is to be labeled a bust. It is the apex of failure. There are two ways to be labeled a bust: either you were a high draft pick that didn’t live up to your expected potential or you were signed to a big contract that you could never live up to. Once given this label, it’s very difficult for a player to shake it off. Regardless of whether the player is injured or not, fan forgiveness is not usually a word related to the bust label. Just ask Greg Oden. Sometimes, though, a player is either too oblivious or too hard-headed to care about the bust label and continues to truck on.

Hasheem Thabeet is one of those players. A player, who by all accounts and purposes, should have just said, “Forget this (alternate words, of course)”, and taken his millions and retired on an island. With all the criticism and embarrassment that was heaped onto him in his first 3 seasons in the league, it would have been easy to walk away with whatever money he had in hand and move on to the next phase of his life. But that just isn’t Thabeet’s style. Here’s a man who, at the age of 14, lost his father to diabetes and decided at that point that he had to become the man of the house. To assert himself into manhood, Thabeet decided to drop his father’s last name of Manka, and instead use his middle name as his last name. Mind you, this was not a move to forget his father or his past. Instead, it was a symbolic gesture towards a new start. One that Thabeet could have never imagined would turn out the way it has.

One of Thabeet’s first decisions as the man of the house was to quit school and get a job. For about a year, Thabeet worked odd jobs as a model and as a bouncer at a club. With his imposing height, he could definitely look the part of a mean bouncer, but Thabeet never took part in the fights. He was too afraid to. His mother eventually convinced him to go back to school to continue his education. It was in this second go-around in school that a coach coaxed him into playing basketball. It was only a matter of time before Thabeet’s tall frame and go-go gadget arms were introduced to the game where those attributes are strengths. At first hesitant, he eventually adapted to the game and began to flourish.

The road to the NBA is not always a linear path. When you think of basketball hotbeds in Africa, you think of countries like Angola, Zaire, and Congo. You definitely don’t think of a country like Tanzania where soccer reigns supreme. Thabeet took the proactive approach and began filling out applications for every university he could find via Google. Eventually, his talents took him to a prep school in Nairobi, Kenya, where French businessman Oliver Noah took notice of Thabeet and asked to send the kid to the US for further prepping. Thabeet’s mother obliged and he was on his way to the USA to attend high school. Of course, not everything went as planned, as it is sometimes difficult to compare African school standards to American school standards. Transcript issues arose, and what should have been one stop in Los Angeles, turned into stops in Picayune, Mississippi and Houston, Texas.

After graduating from Cypress Christian School in Houston, Thabeet made his way to Storrs to attend the University of Connecticut. For the first time in five years, Thabeet finally had some semblance of stability. He could finally be what he really was: a 19 year old freshman. He flourished under Jim Calhoun’s tutelage, becoming a dominant force on the defensive end, while holding his own on the offensive end. Thabeet went on to win 2 consecutive Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards, and shared the Big East Player of the Year award in his junior season with Pittsburgh’s Dejuan Blair.

Needless to say, expectations were definitely high when Thabeet declared for the 2009 NBA Draft. Names like Dikembe Mutombo and Samuel Dalembert were being tossed around as comparisons. The consensus was that Thabeet would be great defensively, but would need time to develop offensively. As is the standard with most big men, Thabeet was considered to be a high risk, high reward project that would need a lot of development.

The funny thing about expectations is that it’s a two way street. On one hand you have the player, of whom the results are expected from. On the other hand, you have the basketball mind (usually a front office personnel or scout) that acknowledges that the skills seen in the lower level of basketball will translate to the highest level of basketball. In this case, it was former Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace who selected the center with the No.2 pick in the draft. Usually, when a team drafts that high, they are looking for an impact player at a position of need. But the Grizzlies already had two young centers that they were developing in Marc Gasol and Hamed Haddadi. The leash was short in Memphis and when Thabeet struggled to adjust to the speed of the game, he was sent to the D-League, earning the dubious record of being the highest draft pick ever sent down.

The next season, Thabeet battled with Haddadi for back up minutes throughout the season. At the trading deadline, Thabeet was traded to Houston Rockets for Shane Battier. In Houston, Thabeet only appeared in 2 games for the Rockets, spending most of the rest of the season in the D-League. In the next season, Hasheem was once again dealt at the trading deadline, this time to the Portland Trailblazers. At the end of the season, the Blazers chose not to pick up Thabeet’s 4th year rookie option, and the center became an unrestricted free agent.

There had been rumors that Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti was very intrigued with the possibility of drafting Thabeet with the No.3 pick in the 2009 draft. As we know, that opportunity never materialized and the Thunder selected James Harden, instead. There were also rumors that Presti had tried to pull off a couple trading deadline deals to obtain Thabeet, but those, again, never materialized. So when Thabeet became an unrestricted free agent this past offseason, Presti pounced on the opportunity to sign the center for the league minimum.

Brimming with a confidence not seen since his UConn days, Thabeet is flourishing in his role as the Thunder’s back-up center. No longer burdened by his draft position, Thabeet is going out there and playing the role that he has earned. Though his numbers aren’t that gaudy through 8 games, you can tell Hasheem has learned a lot about the game in these last 3 seasons and is only now starting to put it all together. He is no longer needed to save a franchise. Instead, he can be part of a team and contribute

Not unlike a young quarterback who has struggled through numerous coaching and system changes, Thabeet was never allowed to develop in one system for any amount of time. Instead, he has been shuffled from one team to another in his first 3 seasons and never was able to develop his game or his confidence. His move to OKC probably feels like his move to Storrs, Connecticut seven years ago. A sense of stability is coming and Thabeet is just now scratching the surface of his potential. On this team, he doesn’t need to be Dikembe Mutombo or Hakeem Olajuwon. He just needs to be Hasheem.