Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Thunder and their D-League usage

Rio Grande Vipers v Tulsa 66ers

The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement brought changes to how teams could use their D-League affiliates. As NBADL president Dan Reed said, “The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA. By encouraging more robust use of our league to accelerate the development of NBA players and prospects, over time we believe this agreement will lead to more NBA teams operating their own NBA D-League affiliate, an increased number of NBA players that develop in our league, and an even better in-arena experience for our fans.” In other words, the NBA felt the restrictions placed on player movement from the D-League to the NBA were hindering the D-League’s ability to reach its full potential as a true developmental/minor league for the NBA. 

In the previous CBA, a team could only assign a player to the D-League up to three times per season. This lack of flexibility made it difficult for teams to assign players because the assigned player still counted on their 15 man roster. Normally, a team would assign a player to the D-League and leave them there for a three to five game stints, if not longer. While this allowed for some consistency with the player, it became an issue for the team if they had to recall said player due to injuries on the NBA roster. It didn’t matter whether it was a 1 game stint or a 10 game stint, it still counted as a D-League assignment. In the new CBA, a team has no limit as to how many times it can assign a player with 3 years or less experience in the league.

 This new rule becomes very advantageous to teams that have their own D-League affiliate. Currently, there are 11 teams in the league that have their own D-League team. The rest of the 19 teams have to divide their assigned players amongst the remaining 5 D-League teams. The teams that have their own D-League affiliates are able to run the same system throughout their NBA and minor league teams. This leads to a level of consistency in all facets of the organization. Even though the players may not be the same on either level, the defensive and offensive systems can be consistent throughout. On these 11 teams, players that are shuffled back and forth between the “farm” team and the NBA team don’t have to learn new terminology or new schematics between the different teams. The schema remains the same and the confidence that usually accompanies consistency starts to show through.

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 This has been very evident with the Thunder’s young players. Oklahoma City is in strange position of being a contending team with young players to develop. Most contending teams have veteran-laden rosters and don’t have the time to develop young talent. Though the Thunder’s roster is young throughout, the main core is veteran enough, having gone through 3 successive playoff runs that culminated with a loss in the Finals last season. With great players comes the cost of paying these superstar players. The Thunder currently have $54.2 million allotted to its top 5 players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, and Kendrick Perkins). That number jumps up to $54.3 million with Ibaka’s extension kicking in, but that is without Martin, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Assuming that the Thunder re-sign Martin, the Thunder are looking at $60+ million in salary for 5 players next season. The need for cheap labor (rookies and young players) becomes very necessary as a team tries to balance being a contender with balancing the proverbial NBA checkbook.

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 When you are battling for playoff positioning throughout the season, there aren’t many opportunities to develop young talent. Every game counts when a team is looking to secure home court advantage. A slip up here or there can be the difference between a team playing a deciding game at home or on the road. Non-playoff teams have all the time and patience in the world to develop young talent at an NBA level. The Thunder experienced a little bit of this last season when they were forced to play then rookie guard Reggie Jackson heavy minutes as the back-up point guard after Eric Maynor went down 9 games into the season with a torn ACL. Jackson struggled throughout the season in this role and was relegated to the end of the bench by the end of February after the Thunder signed Derek Fisher. With Maynor back this season, the Thunder have been able to send Jackson back and forth between the D-League and the Thunder.

 One of the advantages of this system is that it allows young players to build their muscle memory and confidence. Athletes, especially basketball players, live off of muscle memory. Muscle memory is defined as a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. An example of muscle memory would be typing. Once you learn where the letters are on the keyboard, you can begin typing at your heart’s content without looking at the keyboard. Basketball involves a lot of fast-twitch muscularity due to the read and react nature of the sport. You see a defender leaning in one direction and you react by driving in the opposite direction in a split second. This type of muscle memory can only be duplicated in in-game settings. During the season, teams cannot scrimmage during every practice to replicate in-game situations. The only way to develop this type of muscle memory is to actually play in the games. If a team is not willing to let its young players develop on the NBA floor, the next best option is in the D-League.

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 That muscle memory is extremely important when a player a called upon to give you 5-6 good minutes in a game. When Jeremy Lamb was put into a game against the Detroit Pistons at the beginning of the season, he played 3 minutes, committed 1 turnover and 2 fouls. He played and looked like every bit of the rookie that he was. But after a couple of games in the D-League in which he averaged 23 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 3.3 apg, Lamb’s number was called again against the Atlanta Hawks. This time, he performed beautifully in his 5 minutes, scoring 5 points, grabbing 1 rebound, and getting 1 steal, all while effectively guarding Josh Smith, who had 5 inches and 40 pounds on him. I can’t definitively state that there is a direct correlation between Lamb’s time in the D-League and his performance in that one game, but the confidence he played with definitely had something do with his time in Tulsa.

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 Reggie Jackson is another one of those players that has benefitted from his time in Tulsa. After providing a spark off the bench in a game versus the New Orleans Hornets as an energy player, Jackson was sent to the D-League for a 2 game stint in which he averaged 32 ppg, 8 rpg, and 7 apg. Jackson logged significant minutes in the game prior to his 2 game stint and then logged 13 minutes in the prime time game against the Miami Heat on Christmas day. While he didn’t come anywhere close to averaging the number he put up in Tulsa in those two games, the confidence he played with shows a maturation to his game. Even more significant in the Miami game is that he played the back-up point guard role, while Maynor received a DNP-CD.

 The Thunder have also been sending rookie Perry Jones III to the D-League, along with 2nd year wingman DeAndre Liggins and 3rd year center Daniel Orton. While these players have yet to have a breakout moment in the NBA this season, the ability to play in the D-League and then practice with the NBA team will only improve the skill-set and their confidence. Jones III’s development is of utmost importance to the Thunder, as his skill set as a tweener forward will give the Thunder a serious weapon in the front court as they move forward. 

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 Confidence and playing time are two of the most important things in the development of a young player. While NBA teams may not be able to provide the young players with copious amounts of playing time, they can provide them with an avenue (the D-League) to continue developing and improving, all while playing basketball in real game situations. The Thunder hope that the pipeline from Tulsa to OKC will provide them with cheap, young talent that will allow them to maintain their championship contending core.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Thunder

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One of the greatest things about fatherhood is the ability to relive your childhood without having to feel one ounce of guilt or embarrassment. For example, when I was coming up, I grew up on the Street……Sesame Street, that is. So when my kids started reaching the age of noticing the moving objects on the television screen, one of the first things I put on the tube for them was Sesame Street. I would watch it with them and sing along, all while reminiscing about my own childhood. After growing too old for the Street, I progressed to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That was my fad until my cousin showed me some shoes with the insignia of a man flying through the air with a basketball in his extended left hand and his legs spread apart. It was all over for cartoons after that.

Eventually, kids develop their own individual likes and drop old favorites into the dusty corners of their long term memory. So, it was a complete surprise to me when my kids were looking through the DVD collection and grabbed my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 1 DVD and said they wanted to watch it. So, of course, we sat down and watched it and they LOVED it. Luckily, Nickelodeon was coming out with a new Ninja Turtles series themselves, so it fit in with them nicely. Now they (and myself) are all about the Turtles. I watch the new cartoon with them on Saturday mornings (I know, I didn’t know Saturday morning cartoons existed anymore, either) and we sometimes have matches where I’m the Shredder and they take turns beating me with weapons (bruises go away, memories don’t).

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So, as I’m watching this new Ninja Turtles series, I can’t help but make comparisons to another team in my life, namely the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you’ve never seen or heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, let me give you a real quick overview. Four mutated turtles with humanoid features fight evil from their backdrop of their sewer lair where they are trained in ninjutsu by a mutated humanoid rat. The rat and turtles share a father/sons relationship, with the turtles coming into their teenage years. Hence, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, each turtle has his own personality traits, which lends to the parental struggles of Splinter, their rat sensei. Along with their human friends, April O’Neal and Casey Jones, they form a team and battle different foes.

This is not very different from any other professional team: different personalities all coming together to battle one common opponent. And that’s where I thought the similarities between the Ninja Turtles and the Oklahoma City Thunder crossed-over. The personality traits of the characters are very similar to the personality traits of some of the main component of the Thunder. So without further ado….

The Good Guys

Leonardo is Kevin Durant – The unquestioned leader of the Turtles, Leonardo is an apt pupil and the apple of Splinter’s eyes. He exhibits strong leadership qualities, but also struggles in keeping harmony with all the different personalities on his team. Part of leadership is ability, and Leonardo is a master at the martial arts. Similarly, Kevin Durant is the unquestioned leader of the Thunder. Though words may not be his tool of choice, Durant’s actions on the court often dictate how his teammates react.

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Raphael is Russell Westbrook – Was there ever really any question? I mean, if there is anyone in the cartoon world that fits Westbrook to a tee, it is Raphael. Raphael is the hot head of the group. He has the most attitude in comparison to the other turtles, but also has the most swag (confidence, if you don’t speak street). He’s good and he knows it. His quick temperedness can be a detriment as it clouds his judgment. Part of the reason for Raphael’s hot temper, though, is that he cares too much about situations and about others around him. Westbrook, the volatile point guard for the Thunder, and their unquestioned second in command, has always toed the line between beauty and disaster. He has an unwavering confidence in himself that can lead to astonishing displays of awe or to frustrating learning moments that leave you shaking your head. While many question his motives, those who are in tune with the Thunder know that Westbrook does the things that he does because all he cares about is winning. The bottom line, not individual stats, are the most important thing for Westbrook.

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Donatello is Kevin Martin – Donatello is the scientific brains behind the whole operation. He’s mild-mannered and spends his free time building gizmos and gadgets for his turtle brethren that will be used in combat. He’s an adept fighter, but his intelligence is his biggest asset. Kevin Martin is probably one of the smartest offensive basketball players in the NBA in terms of floor spacing and angle awareness. His high basketball IQ help him find spaces on the floor where he can launch his automatic jumper. His mellow demeanor only masked the trained assassin that lurks inside the No. 23 jersey.

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Michelangelo is Serge Ibaka – Believe me, this was probably the most difficult one. Michelangelo is the fun-loving, “life of the party” of the turtle quartet. He’s very innocent and young-minded, and tends to see the good in everything. But he’s also very loyal and willing to fight for what he considers important (namely, family). Before the trade, James Harden was a shoo-in for the role of Michelangelo. But with Harden’s departure, Serge Ibaka becomes the representative for Michelangelo. He’s a fun loving guy who was probably very innocent and young-minded to the ways of the United States when he first got here. Now that’s he adjusted, though, he is the life of the party (well, parties with a lot of women in them). Due to his rough upbringing, he probably sees the positive in many things in life. But mess with his team (family), and you’ll have something else coming to you.

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Splinter is Scott Brooks – Splinter is the sensei (teacher) of the turtles. He is much older than them and acts as their father figure. He is a mutated rat that has humanoid features. He has raised them from young turtles to where they are today, extolling values and morals onto them. He is ultra-protective of them, but like any parent of a teenager, knows that he must let up a bit to allow the turtles to explore the world on their own. Five years ago, Scott Brooks was tasked with taking an extremely young team, that had known nothing but losing. Through his teachings (“play defense with your heart”, “push it, push it, push it, “we’re not out of this”) the Thunder have improved upon themselves every season and are now one of the best teams in the league.

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April O’Neal is Wanda Pratt – April is the human liaison for the Turtles. Since the NBA still does not have any female players (enter joke here about NBA player X whom you think is a female), super fan/mother Wanda Pratt would have to do for this comparison. She cheers on the team that her son plays for and treats them all like her kids.

 

Casey Jones is Kendrick Perkins – Casey Jones is a male character in the series that is a vigilante and sometimes fights with the Turtles. He carries an assortment of weapons, such as hockey sticks and baseball bats, and wears a mask. If weapons were allowed on the court, Kendrick Perkins would probably be carrying the biggest bag. Thankfully, all he has on the court is his Scowl Mask. But like Casey Jones, he will extol justice whenever necessary.

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The Bad Guys

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Shredder is Lebron James – The Shredder is the Turtle’s biggest enemy. He is a lifelong foe of Splinter, and would like nothing more than to destroy the Turtles and Splinter. Even though, Kevin Durant and Lebron James are all buddy-buddy off the court, there is no doubt in my mind that James is our biggest obstacle from attaining our prize. Like the Shredder, James has become ruthless when the game is on the line and is starting to come up big when it matters.

The Foot Clan are the Miami Heat – The ninja army put together by the Shredder. Need I say more how this relates to the Miami Heat. When you face Lebron, you also have to face The Foot.

 

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Krang is Gregg Popovich – Krang is an alien brain that brought technology from space to help the Shredder and his sinister plan. Extremely intelligent and cunning, Krang is only limited by a lack of a body. Gregg Popovich has only one thing on his mind…and that is winning. No matter what he has to do. Rest all his starters on a nationally televised game against the Foot Clan (Heat), and absorb a $250,000 fine? Check. Play rookies when other contenders wouldn’t even mess with young players? Check. Extremely meticulous, he details every plan and plans for every detail.

 

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Bebop and Rocksteady are Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – Bebop and Rocksteady are the evil mutant equivalent to the Turtles. A wart hog mutant and a rhino mutant, they punish objects using their physicality and brute strength. Gasol and Randolph are probably the best big man duo in the league and do not lack for size.

Tokka and Rahzar are Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol – The movie (Hollywood) equivalent to Bebop and Rocksteady, these guys were also very physically imposing, but were very intellectually limited. While not intellectually limited, the Lakers’ record with Howard and Gasol manning the middle is currently very limiting.

Baxter Stockman is Mike D’antoni – Stockman, a brilliant scientist, is transformed into a humanoid fly after a mutagen accident. D’antoni, a brilliant offensive strategist, was transformed into the Lakers’ head coach after the firing of Mike Brown. So far, the results have been a underwhelming, with a 4-7 start.

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If you are reading this and are over the age of 35, I can understand if this may seem foreign to you. But remember any of your favorites quartets growing up (the O’Jays, the Beatles, the Four Horseman, the Seinfeld crew, etc.), and you’ll realize that the different personalities/talents actually made the whole better than the individual parts. Cartoons never seem to have a finality to them because the writers want to keep the story arcs going. But if I were to write the ending for the Thunder this season, it would end with a Western Conference playoff run that sees us vanquishing the Lakers, Spurs, and Grizzlies. Then, it would culminate with the Thunder defeating the Heat in 7 games in OKC, and the networks renewing us for another season.