Monthly Archives: July 2015

D-Day: Decision Day for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Enes Kanter

kanter thunder

Why do people save money? There are usually two reasons why people save money. The first is to be prepared for an emergency. If the car breaks down or the air conditioner goes out, you have the funds necessary to replenish this item without digging into the budget. The second reason people usually save money is to purchase an item of great worth. Be it shoes, a house, or a boat, these are the items where patience becomes a virtue. Too many times, people head into a situation where they want to save, but end up either getting a cheaper knockoff or end up purchasing the item too quickly on credit, which leads to future budgeting issues.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been saving for the past 6 seasons. Emergencies happen all the time in sports. These emergencies usually involves a catastrophic injury to a key player or two. Having that salary cap flexibility of not being in the luxury tax is key to recovering quickly if your main player(s) go down. But the true essence of why the Thunder have been saving money can be traced back to October 27, 2012. That was the day the Thunder avoided going into the luxury tax by trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets.

On the surface, the trade has been a disaster for the Thunder. Harden finished 2nd in the MVP voting this past season and led his team to the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder, on the other hand, have seen the last 3 seasons end in disappointment due to various injuries to key players. The players obtained in the Harden trade are known as the pennies in the saying “pennies on the dollar”. Kevin Martin was a great 6th man for one season, but signed with Minnesota the next season. Jeremy Lamb was a marginal bench player his entire Thunder career and was recently traded to the Charlotte Hornets for a 2nd round pick. Steven Adams and Mitch McGary were first round picks obtained in the trade and have been the most valuable commodities from the trade. And Alex Abrines was drafted with the 2nd round pick obtained in the trade and has yet to step foot in the United States. But the most important asset to come out of the trade was the salary cap flexibility.

To the casual NBA fan, talks of salary cap flexibility, luxury tax and repeater tax concerns, max contracts, market size, so on and so forth are the minutiae that makes the NBA offseason so boring. The casual fan only pays attention from November to June (scratch that, April to June). All they see is players, their stats, and how much they make. They don’t take into account that NBA teams have to budget and balance their checkbooks like normal people do. While its true that their budgets likely feature many more commas than ours do, the fact still remains that NBA teams have to run their organization within certain boundaries. Spend too frivolously, and your organization will likely lose money.  Don’t spend enough, and your organization is likely destined for failure. Finding the balance is the key to success in the NBA. And sometimes, in that balance, difficult decisions have to be made.

westbrook kanter thunder

The Thunder made that difficult decision when they traded Harden. They eschewed paying the luxury tax in preparation for this moment. The harsh reality is that James Harden was never going to be James Harden if he stayed in Oklahoma City. He was a redundancy on a team that already featured two great ball handlers. He knew this and, if reports are true, made the ultimatum that he either get paid max money or get traded to a team where he could receive max money. The split between OKC and Harden was a mutual split. Both parties got what they wanted in the end. What Oklahoma City got, in addition to the players and draft picks that came over in the trade, was the comfort in knowing that they could safely go into the luxury tax when the perfect opportunity arose.

On February 19th, 2015, the Thunder traded Kendrick Perkins, Grant Jerrett, the rights to Tibor Pliess, and a future first round pick to the Utah Jazz for Enes Kanter and Steve Novak. Kanter was in his 4th season, which meant that, with the trade, the Thunder owned his Bird Rights as he headed into restricted free agency in the offseason. In the 26 games Kanter played for OKC, he was a double/double machine, averaging 18.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. He provided something the Thunder had never seen before since they moved to the Great Plains, an inside scoring presence. Kanter and Russell Westbrook quickly became familiar with each other in the pick and roll game. With Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka out for much of the 2nd half of the season, Kanter stepped in as that 2nd scorer behind Westbrook. While his defense was deplorable, some of that may have been an effect of Durant and Ibaka not being there to help him out defensively.

After not reaching an agreement with the Thunder when free agency began on July 1st, Kanter decided signed a 4 year/$70 million dollar offer sheet with the Portland Trailblazers, who were one of three teams who still had the cap space to sign Kanter. Reports were the Thunder offered Kanter $15.5 million per season for 4 seasons. Kanter’s representatives instead chose to wait on the market to see if a max contract was offered, which Portland did on July 9th. The max contract features a player option for the 4th year and a trade kicker. Portland tried to add all the poison pills they could to make the contract as unattractive as possible for the Thunder.

So here’s where the Thunder stand. They have until midnight tonight to match Portland’s offer sheet. This is what all the saving was for. The Thunder sacrificed a lot in the past to be in the position they are today. The beautiful thing about it is that they still have options. If they feel Kanter is not worth this contract, they can walk away from the table, and the Thunder would still be one of the top teams in the league, health permitting. But, if they feel Kanter is the final piece to their championship puzzle, they will gladly match the offer sheet with a smile on their face, knowing full well this was the moment they were waiting for.

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Summer League: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 3 of 5)

christon thunder payton magic

  • When: Tuesday, 07 July 2015 at 4:00 PM CST
  • Where: Amway Center – Orlando Magic practice facility, Orlando, FL

The Oklahoma City Thunder showed what a team with a little bit of chemistry can get accomplished in their last game against the Orlando Magic Blue team. This Thunder team, which is mostly comprised of players from the Thunder’s Developmental League affiliate, the Blue,  have something a lot of teams in summer league do not have: familiarity. Whether its Semaj Christon knowing exactly what sets to run, Frank Gaines setting up in optimal spots to get wide open shots, or Talib Zanna and Richard Solomon knowing when to roll or where to rebound, its a team that knows itself. And that becomes very evident in the first couple games of summer league.

The Thunder find themselves sitting at 2-0, behind the Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic White team, who are also undefeated, but have either won more quarters than the Thunder or have won by a larger margin. There comes a point in summer league, where the players who are bonafide NBA players, rise to the top of the heap. That’s what happened in the last game as Mitch McGary and Aaron Gordon put on a show. Gordon finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds on 8-11 shooting, while showing a vast array of ball-handling skills and play-making ability. McGary on the other hand, finished with 19 points on 9-12 shooting, and showed a Magic Johnson-like ability to grab a rebound on one end of the court and start a one-man fast break towards the other end of the court, usually ending with a transition basket.

The Opponent

los angeles clippers summer league

The Los Angeles Clippers summer league team is currently 0-2, one of four teams in the Orlando Summer League to yet win a game. The team is comprised of several players who have NBA experience, but the chemistry appears to be lacking. The strength of the team lies in its backcourt duo of Nate Wolters and CJ Wilcox. Wolters has been in the league two years and is looking to latch onto to a team for this upcoming season. Wilcox, the Clippers’ first round selection from last season, played in only 21 games and is looking to expand his role on the team with the departure of Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. Another player looking to get picked up by a team for this upcoming season is Jordan Hamilton, who has four years of experience in the NBA. Hamilton is a versatile power forward who has played with Denver, Houston, and Los Angeles (Clippers) in his short career. Diante Garrett comes off the bench for this team and can be a spark plug 6th man. Royce White, who was last with the Sacramento Kings, is looking to get back in the league after issues with various front offices over his mental health caused him to get waived. Second round pick Branden Dawson is looking to see some action this season in the NBA and has shown a knack for rebounding and defense.

Three keys in the Game

1. Power forward match-up – Mitch McGary will have another tough match-up on his hands today going up against Jordan Hamilton. While not as versatile as Aaron Gordon, Hamilton is more of a post player, but can step out for the occasional 3-pointer. With the word out on McGary’s transition ability, look for the Clippers to get back on defense as soon as a shot goes up. McGary will likely further showcase his perimeter game today.

mcgary thunder

2. Attack the defense – Los Angeles has proven they can score in their two games, but they’ve also shown to be a bad defensive team, giving up 75 and 77 points, respectively. None of their players are known as defensive stalwarts and with Semaj Christon’s ability to get past the first line of defense and into the teeth of the defense, it could spell trouble for the Clippers.

3. Rebounding – Rebounding has been an issue for the Clippers this summer. Their only good rebounder is Branden Dawson, who has grabbed 19 boards total in the Clippers’ first two games. Look for Dakari Johnson and Talib Zanna to have double digit rebounding games today.

Summer League: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Orlando Magic (Blue Team) Recap

thunder summer league

The Oklahoma City Thunder remained unbeaten in summer league play as they defeated the Orlando Magic Blue Team, 73-65. The Thunder moved to 2-0, behind the combined efforts of Mitch McGary and Semaj Christon. The Magic got off to a quick start, jumping out to a 6-1 lead to begin the game.  The Thunder weathered the initial storm and stayed in attack mode for the rest of the game. With the score 52-51 in favor of OKC with 8 minutes left in the game, the Thunder started to attack the basket at will and outscored the Magic 21-13 in those final 8 minutes.

The Thunder featured three players that were constantly attacking the paint (McGary, Christon, and Levi Randolph). For the Magic, only Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja seemed to be trying out there. Christon thoroughly outplayed Elfrid Payton, who finished fourth in the NBA Rookie of the Year vote last season. Christon consistently got past Payton to get into the teeth of the Magic defense where he displayed his playmaking ability and an array of tear drops and bank shots.

McGary put on a show, going from rebounding the ball on one end of the court to starting a one man fastbreak to the other side of the court. This has always been a part of McGary’s game, and now he appears to be more comfortable in incorporating this into his repertoire more often. McGary also displayed a mid-range jumper, making shots that stretched out past 18 feet. If McGary is able to incorporate that into his game with the Thunder, they may have their hands on another versatile offensive player.

mcgary thunder summer league

 

For the Magic, Aaron Gordon put on a summer league clinic. He had a double/double, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 boards. He displayed a versatile offensive game that featured mid-range jumpers, ball-handling, and play-making. Gordon seemed comfortable handling the ball and being the focal point on offense. For Mario Hezonja, this game was likely a microcosm of what his rookie season will be like. There were flashes of brilliance, like the monstrous dunk in the first half and the ‘in your face’ 3-pointer in the 3rd quarter to bring the Magic within 1. But there were also mistakes and inefficiencies that will be a part of Hezonja’s rookie campaign. Hezonja’s finished with 14 points, but on 6-16 shooting from the field (2-9 from the 3-point line). One of his best comparisons coming in was JR Smith, and this performance was very Smith-esque.

Elfrid Payton, on the other hand, had a game to forget. He scored just 4 points on 1-3 shooting, while notching 4 assists and 4 turnovers. His shot, which was his biggest weakness coming into last season, seems to have shown no improvement at all. This may be something to watch with his young Orlando team in the next 2 to 3 seasons.

The Thunder will play the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, while the Orlando Magic Blue team will play the Memphis Grizzlies.

Orlando Summer League: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Orlando Magic Blue Team preview (Game 2 of 5)

thunder summer league

  • When: Monday, 06 July 2015 at 2:00 PM CST
  • Where: Orlando Magic practice facility, Orlando, FL

Summer league games are, in essence, exercises in hope. If you’ve watched summer league long enough, you know 80-90% of the guys on the court won’t ever make it to the NBA. If your name was not called in the first round, your chances of making it to the bigs drop significantly. With all that said, though, we still watch. If you are a true fan, you become familiar with all the players on the roster and even start to pick up little tidbits about them. A week later, unfortunately, all that knowledge gets cycled into the memory dump of our brains, and most of those players become but a distant memory. But as you watch the games, you start to notice things about players that may actually help your NBA roster.

After one game, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit at 1-0, having defeated the Charlotte Hornets 76-74. Lacking a dearth of NBA experience, the Thunder summer league roster depended on defense for key stretches in the game and on their back-court duo of Semaj Christon and Frank Gaines, who combined for 31 points. Christon notched a double-double with 14 points and 10 assists, while also hitting the deciding basket on a drive on the Thunder’s final possession. Mitch McGary and Dakari Johnson cleaned up well around the basket, each grabbing double digit rebound totals (24 rebounds total between the two). The spark off the bench came from Travis Bader who came into the game in the 2nd quarter, and quickly racked up 10 points on 2 3-point shots, a mid-range jumper, and 2 free throws. Defensively, McGary struggled a bit with Hornets’ rookie Frank Kaminsky, losing him several times on the pick and roll. Kaminsky finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Hornets, but did not score in the 4th quarter.

The Opponent

mario hezonja magic

Orlando brings two teams into their summer league. Their White team is made up mostly of guys that will likely spend most of their time next season in the Developmental League and overseas. The Blue team on the other hand, is made up of all the first and second year players that will likely see significant minutes in the NBA this season. This is an extremely smart move by the Magic who would like to see their young guys play together to develop a rhythm, instead of having them mixed with players who, honestly, likely will never sniff an NBA court. The Blue team won its first game against the Los Angeles Clippers, 75-74, in overtime. The Blue team is led by point guard Elfrid Payton, who was first team All-Rookie last season. Joining him on the wing are Magic first round pick Mario Hezonja and second year player Devyn Marble. Hezonja hit the deciding 3-point shot in overtime in the Blue team’s first summer league game. Up front, Aaron Gordon and Brandon Davies all have NBA experience. Off the bench, the Magic (Blue team) will likely use their 2nd round pick Tyler Harvey as an offensive spark plug.

Three Keys in the Game

1. Experience – The bulk of the minutes doled out to players on the Magic team will be to those players with NBA experience. While the Thunder don’t have the same amount of NBA experience, they do have a team that is quite familiar with itself as most of the Thunder’s roster is composed of players who were on the Thunder development team, the Blue.

semaj christon thunder II

2. Summer league superstar match-ups – While there aren’t necessarily any superstars in summer league, there are some interesting match-ups in this game. Aaron Gordon and Mitch McGary will likely match up a lot in this game. Both are athletic forwards that have a year’s worth of NBA experience under their belt. The other interesting match-up will be Elfrid Payton against Semaj Christon. The Thunder love Christon’s game and this will be a good barometer as to how ready he is to play in the NBA.

3. Mario Hezonja – Aside from the Thunder players, I’m most excited to see Super Mario. He was okay in his first game, but when the spotlight shined the brightest in the closing seconds of overtime, he hit the dagger three. This guy is far from a finished product, but his confidence and swagger make him a must-watch in summer league action.