Tag Archives: Atlanta Hawks

Early Training Camp Stories

durant media day thunder

With Monday’s media day out of the way, the Oklahoma City Thunder started their journey into the 2014-15 NBA season. Like every other training camp before this one, there are questions and issues that need to be settled before the season begins. Luckily, the Thunder don’t have to contend with any roster-shattering trades or major injury issues like they have in the last two training camps. The Thunder come into camp basically intact and healthy. Here are some of the issues the Thunder are hoping to settle before October 29th.

1. Reggie Jackson

Probably the biggest question mark heading into the season is the contract situation of Reggie Jackson. The Thunder have until October 31st to work out an extension with Jackson. If no deal is done by then, Jackson will enter restricted free agency next offseason. Thunder GM Sam Presti, in his address to the media, said Jackson was a “core member” of the team and that the team was working hard in trying to secure an extension.

Many people will hark back to how the Thunder handled (or didn’t handle) the James Harden extension. As has been rehashed many times over, Harden and the Thunder couldn’t get an extension worked out and Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets four days before the beginning of the season. But there are two major differences between the two situations. The first difference is that Jackson is not a max player. While NBA teams have been giving out very generous contracts to “upper middle class” type players in the past few offseasons, Jackson unfortunately plays a position of excess in the NBA. Many teams already either have their point guard or aren’t necessarily in the market to pay max money for a “middle class” player. The second major difference is the Thunder’s financial situation. Due to the Harden trade, the Thunder were able to maintain their salary cap flexibility and, even with 3 max or near max deals, are in great financial shape. With the salary cap set to greatly increase in the next 2-3 seasons, the Thunder can offer Jackson a reasonable contract without endangering their ability to extend Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka.

The Thunder have everything in their favor to re-sign Jackson. But like many other situations in life, the events we think will be solved in a straight line, usually become roller coasters before we reach the finish line. The monkey wrench in this situation is Jackson’s adamant desire to be a starter. He planted the seed during exit interviews at the end of last season. And his tone didn’t change throughout the offseason. As Jackson stated during media day, “I can’t remember any great that wasn’t a starter. All the greats have started. I just want to be great. I want a chance to be great. I can’t recall a superstar Sixth Man.” The problem is that Jackson is point guard sized, and the Thunder have an opening at shooting guard, a position usually reserved on the Thunder for a long-winged defender that can (hopefully) make spot-up 3-pointers.

The Thunder got a sneak peak at what a Westbrook/Jackson back court would look like in the last four games of the Western Conference Finals. While the results were positive, the Thunder will probably choose to go the traditional route for the regular season. Whether its a ploy by Jackson to leverage the Thunder into more money or whether Jackson truly wants to be a starter in the league, this monkey wrench is probably a long ways away from getting resolved. Look for Jackson to head into the season without an extension.

2. Starting Shooting Guard

For the first time in five seasons, someone other than Thabo Sefolosha will start at SG for the Thunder on opening night. Sefolosha signed with the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason, thus opening the 2-guard spot. Sefolosha struggled in his final season with the Thunder and was relegated to bench duty at times in two of the Thunder’s three playoff series. The Thunder have a bevy of candidates that could possibly start at shooting guard.

Andre Roberson started 16 games for the Thunder as a rookie when Sefolosha was out with a calf strain in the 2nd half of the season. He has shown flashes of being the prototypical wing defender that the Thunder love to use at the 2-guard position, but is a developing work in progress on the offensive end. In 40 games total last season, Roberson only attempted 13 3-pointers, making only 2 in the process. He knows his limitations offensively and usually defers to his more offensively minded teammates.

Jeremy Lamb was viewed as being the heir-apparent to James Harden after the trade two seasons ago. He could shoot like Harden and was long and rangy enough to be made into an adequate defender. He showed flashes last season, averaging nearly 10 points per game until he hit the “rookie” wall in the second half of the season. Last season was Lamb’s second, but it was his first playing significant minutes. By the end of the season, Lamb’s minutes were going to veterans Caron Butler and Derek Fisher. The Thunder seem to really like what Lamb brings to the team and may look to him to be their version of Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs.

lamb jones thunder

Reggie Jackson is another option. He started the final four games of the Western Conference Finals with Westbrook to positive results. But the Thunder probably view Jackson as their firepower off the bench and one of their closers. While Jackson has been adamant that he would like to start, his best role on this team may be that of his current role as a sixth man.

The dark horse in this competition is Perry Jones. He started six games for the Thunder at SG and did a memorable job defensively on LeBron James in the Thunder’s victory in Miami against the Heat last season. He’s the median between Roberson and Lamb. He can hit the corner 3 pretty consistently and has the tools and ability to be a good defender. The question is whether he has the motor and “want to” to beat out the other candidates?

In the end, I think Lamb comes out of the fray with the starting position. His ability to space the floor will give the Thunder a dimension in their starting line-up they have been severely lacking. The onus will be on Lamb to improve defensively. The Thunder preach defense, and if Lamb is not up to task, there are at least 3 guys in the wings that can replace him.

3. Starting Center

With Kendrick Perkins nursing a quad strain, Steven Adams has an opportunity to supplant the veteran as the team’s starting center. The signs have been pointing towards Adams being the center of the future for this team. But Adams’ play last season may have fast-forwarded that development to this season. Adams started 20 games last season when Perkins was out and developed consistently as the season progressed. In the playoffs, Adams averaged nearly 4 more minutes per game than Perkins after Game 5 of the first round.

Perkins’ contract is up after this season and the team is probably ready to move on from it. While Perkins has been a great locker room presence, his play on the court has not merited his hefty salary. But if the Thunder start Adams, they run into a bit of a conundrum. Perkins’ value is as a starter. He is great defensively against traditional post players, most of whom start. As a bench player though, the little value Perkins does have gets muted. The team could always trade Perkins, as a $9 million dollar expiring contract is a commodity during the trade deadline, but the depth at center suffered a bit when the team traded Hasheem Thabeet. Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and Mitch McGary can all play center, but are better suited for power forward.

What I see happening is a repeat of last season’s playoffs. Perkins will get the starts, but Adams will get the lion’s share of minutes.

4. 15th Spot

The Thunder do have a roster spot open, but have always preferred to keep that spot open until the trade deadline in February. An open roster spots becomes more attractive to a team looking to trade more players than they are receiving. Also, after the deadline, expiring veterans on lottery bound teams are usually bought out so they have the ability to latch onto a playoff-bound team for the stretch run. The Thunder have used this roster spot in recent years to sign Derek Fisher and Caron Butler for late season playoff pushes. In conclusion, I see the Thunder going into the season with an open roster spot.

5. The Semaj Christon Situation

Christon, the Thunder’s 2nd round pick from the 2014 NBA Draft, will apparently be getting the Grant Jerrett treatment. Jerrett was the Thunder’s 2nd round pick from last season’s draft. Instead of inviting him to training camp and being forced to offer him a training camp contract, the Thunder, instead, renounced their rights to him and made him the first pick in that year’s D-League draft. He played the entire season with the Tulsa 66ers, and then signed with the Thunder in the final week of the NBA season. The Thunder then included him on their playoff roster. That inclusion allowed Jerrett to get paid the playoff bonus that all the other players received. The Thunder rewarded Jerrett’s loyalty by offering him a multiyear contract this offseason.

semaj christon thunder blue

According to Christon’s agent Doug Neustadt, he will begin his career with the Thunder’s renamed D-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. Christon has the physical attributes to be a Thunder-type point guard (long, athletic, able to drive and finish). On the Blue, he’ll probably be tasked with running the team and becoming a better shooter. If the Thunder have an open roster spot near the end of the season, look for them to reward Christon for his loyalty and patience.

6. Hot seat for Scott Brooks?

Is this the season that the coaching seat starts to warm up for Brooks. He has probably his most talented roster yet, and will be measured by whether he wins a championship or not. Injuries have had a big hand in deciding the Thunder’s fate the last two postseasons, but Brooks has also been to blame due to his lack of an offensive system and his stubbornness to make rotational changes whenever necessary. Brooks is a great ego-managing coach. He’s nursed the Thunder’s core players from “all-potential” to “all-production”. That is not an easy thing to do in the NBA. But now, its “put up or shut up” time. The team is primed for a championship run and their core players are just now entering their prime. Will Brooks rise above the fray, or will he, once again, be a game too late in making the right adjustments?

7. Is Russell Westbrook the best point guard in the league?

Yes! He outplayed Mike Conley, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker on head to head match-ups in last year’s playoffs. He was probably the 2nd or 3rd best player in the playoffs. And for a 10 game stretch before he necessitated another surgery on his knee in December, he averaged 21.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game on 46.5% shooting. Is he the best pure point guard in the league? Probably not. That title still belongs to Chris Paul. But pound for pound, bringing everything to the table, I’m taking Westbrook every time.

8. Steven Adams’ mustache

The Lord giveth…..

adams thunder 2

…And the Lord taketh away (just a day later – no ‘stache)

 adams practice

#SadFace

9. Will Serge Ibaka ever learn who Mitch McGary is?

OH, the outrage when it was discovered that Serge Ibaka didn’t know who Mitch McGary. How dare Ibaka not know who one of his teammates are? Until you consider that Ibaka was probably just enjoying his time in Spain representing the host country in the FIBA World Cup. Fans tend to think the players are as passionate about the roster makeup of their team as they are. American-born players are used to waking up watching SportsCenter and knowing the ins and outs of the league. Foreign-born players don’t have the same routines as American-born players, so they probably don’t necessarily keep track with all the happenings around the league. Plus, Serge was extremely busy this summer, so its understandable. And besides, he’ll have plenty of time to get to know McGary this season.

In the end, Ibaka could have just been trolling everyone, though.

10. Was this the longest offseason in Thunder history?

Yes!

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2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Divison

Southeast Division Preview

1. Washington Wizards

beal wall gortat wizards

Last season: 44-38 (2nd in the Southeast Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Indiana Pacers

Key Additions:

  • DeJuan Blair – Sign and trade from the Dallas Mavericks
  • Kris Humphries – Sign and trade from the Boston Celtics
  • Paul Pierce – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Trevor Ariza – Signed with the Houston Rockets
  • Trevor Booker – Signed with the Utah Jazz

Season Preview – The young players for the Wizards finally started coming into their own last season. John Wall became an All-Star for the first time, and Bradley Beal showed signs of being one of the best 2-guards in the league. In addition, the acquisitions of Nene and Marcin Gortat have given this team an inside/outside balance that is one of the better ones in the league. The loss of Trevor Ariza may show itself more on the defensive end, but Pierce should be an adequate stop-gap as the Wizards wait on the development of Otto Porter. The only trip up I see with this team is perimeter depth. If Wall or Beal go down for any extended amount of time, this team could be in trouble.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Wizards make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 49-33

2. Charlotte Hornets

walker jefferson hornets bobcats

Last season: 43-39 (3rd in the Southeast Division, 7th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 4 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Miami Heat.

Key Additions:

  • P.J. Hairston – Draft (No. 26 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Brian Roberts – Free agent signing
  • Lance Stephenson – Free agent signing
  • Noah Vonleh – Draft (No. 9 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Marvin Williams – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Luke Ridnour – Signed with the Orlando Magic
  • Josh McRoberts – Signed with the Miami Heat
  • Anthony Tolliver – Signed with the Phoenix Suns
  • Brendan Haywood – Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Chris Douglas-Roberts – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers

Season Preview – The Hornets (formerly the Bobcats) come into this season with as high of expectations as they’ve ever had in their 10 year reincarnation. Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho have slowly put together a balanced team that is built on defense. The key now will be developing the young talent they’ve obtained over the past 2 seasons, while also learning how to consistently win. Al Jefferson provides the Hornets with a go-to scorer, while Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be nightmares on the defensive end for opposing wings. If the Hornets can find consistent scoring from the perimeter, they may be a surprise team in the East.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Hornets make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

3. Miami Heat

wade bosh heat

Last season: 54-28 (1st in the Southeast Division, 2nd in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 loss in the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Luol Deng – Free agent signing
  • Danny Granger – Free agent signing
  • Josh McRoberts – Free agent signing
  • Shabazz Napier – Draft (No. 24 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • LeBron James – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • James Jones – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Ray Allen – Unsigned
  • Shane Battier – Retired
  • Rashard Lewis – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Toney Douglas – Signed overseas
  • Michael Beasley – unsigned

Season preview – It was a good run, boys. The four year “Big 3” experiment yielded four consecutive trips to the Finals and two championships. “Not 1, not 2…” wait, yeah, only 2. LeBron James returning back to Cleveland has brought the Heat back down a notch or two on the NBA spectrum. While Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are still in tow, the engine that made the team run is no longer there. The team that we’ve seen for the past four years will be completely different. No longer will the threat of a driving James cause defenses to collapse into the paint, leaving a plethora of wide open shooters. Instead, Miami will likely run its offense inside/out through Bosh. Gone are the shooters that provided that floor spacing for James and Wade to operate. And the lingering concern over Wade’s health still remains. The Heat will still win games, but there will be a significant drop-off from the previous four seasons.

2014-15 will successful if: The Heat make it to the Eastern Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 44-38

4. Atlanta Hawks

horford millsap korver hawks

Last season: 38-44 (4th in the Southeast Division, 8th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Indiana Pacers

Key Additions:

  • Kent Bazemore – Free agent signing
  • Adreian Payne – Draft (No. 15 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Thabo Sefolosha – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Lou Williams – Traded to the Toronto Raptors
  • Elton Brand – Unsigned
  • Gustavo Ayon – Signed overseas
  • Lucas Nogueira – Traded to the Toronto Raptors

Season preview – If there is a team in the league that wants the season to start already, it is the Atlanta Hawks. The offseason can be a cruel time for a team that is embroiled in controversy. The Bruce Levenson/Danny Ferry race fiasco is a situation that probably won’t be completely resolved until next season. On the court, Atlanta is one of those teams that’s always good enough to win more games than it should, but loses out on getting a good draft pick because of that. Al Horford returns after missing most of last season with a torn right pectoral muscle. Their front line of Horford, Pero Antic, and Paul Millsap will be one of the more dynamic front courts in the league. The addition of Sefolosha will help shore up the perimeter defensively, but will provide little from an offensive standpoint.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Hawks make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 40-42

5. Orlando Magic

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Orlando Magic

Last season: 23-59 (5th in the Southeast Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Evan Fournier – Obtained in a trade with the Denver Nuggets
  • Channing Frye – Free agent signing
  • Aaron Gordon – Draft (No. 4 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Ben Gordon – Free agent signing
  • Willie Green – Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Elfrid Payton – Draft (No. 10 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Luke Ridnour – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Jameer Nelson – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Arron Afflalo – Traded to the Denver Nuggets

Season preview – The Magic are at the point in their rebuild where they need to decide on what to do with some of their young guys. Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris will be coming up on restricted free agency next offseason, with Andrew Nicholson, Maurice Harkless, and Fournier coming up with offseason after that. The Magic will probably be a big player at the trade deadline as they need to start moving some of their young pieces for either a big name player or assets. On the court, the Magic will continue to be an uptempo transition team, especially with Payton manning the point. Victor Oladipo will need to show improvement on his jump-shot, but Ben Gordon and Frye will provide some of the spacing Oladipo needs to operate. I see the Magic slightly improving, but still struggling to consistently win.

2014-15 will be successful if: The young guys continue to develop and the Magic end up with a Top 7 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 26-56

Thunder sign Royal Ivey to a 10-day contract

durant ivey thunder

Royal Ivey signed a 10-day contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder to bolster their point guard depth following the loss of Russell Westbrook to arthroscopic knee surgery. This is Ivey’s second stint with the team. He played with the Thunder for 2 seasons (2010-2012), appearing in 59 games and averaging 1.9 points in 8.3 minutes per game. The 10 year vet has not played this season, after being waived by the Atlanta Hawks on October 25, 2013.

Ivey should be a great addition to the locker room and will provide added depth to the bench. He will be active for tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets.

Welcome back Cheez.

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

thunder western conference champs

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

nba lockout

When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

The Thunder and the 32nd pick

draft pj 3

The Oklahoma City Thunder hold 3 draft picks in this upcoming draft. They have two in the first round, No.12 and 29, and one in the second round, No. 32.  While people are usually enamored by the first round picks, it’s the early second round picks (No. 31-35) that hold more value to teams. It’s an opportunity to grab first round talent without the constriction of a guaranteed contract. Here’s a list of notable players that have been drafted in the 31-35 range in the last 5 season: Nikola Pekovic, Mario Chalmers, DeAndre Jordan, Kyle Singler, Jeffery Taylor, Jae Crowder, Draymond Green. The difference in talent from the last 5 picks of the first round and the first 5 picks of the second round is infinitesimal.

For teams holding a slot in those first 5 picks of the 2nd round, it is an opportunity not only to draft a talented player, but also to procure a trade for an asset. The fact that a team can take a flyer on a player without having to offer a guaranteed contract, makes these picks more valuable than those in the lower end of the first round. These picks becomes doubly valuable before the beginning of a maddening free agency season. When teams vying for free agents want to clear cap space and/or not take on anymore guaranteed salary, they dump players and first round picks in exchange for high second round picks.

presti

Thunder general manager Sam Presti took advantage of this during the last frenzied free agency class, where he also owned the 32nd pick. We arm-chair GM’s love to talk about the would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves. But we have that beautiful thing called hind-sight in our back pockets. Real NBA GM’s don’t have that advantage, but those few great  GM’s have a little thing called foresight. While we focus on our team in the present tense, great GM’s look at the health of other franchises and plot how they can take advantage of their needs. Presti is great at this and seems to be on the prowl again in this draft.

On July 27th, 2009, the Thunder traded Damien Wilkins and Chucky Atkins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Etan Thomas and 2 second round picks. Most people thought this was just one of those offseason trades where a team trades 2 bench players for another bench player. But the haul in that trade was actually the 2nd round pick that turned into No. 32 in the 2010 NBA draft.

Etan Thomas, Andrew Bynum

The 2010 offseason was known for one thing and one thing only….the summer of Lebron. That was the offseason where most of the bumper crop from the 2003 draft class was coming up on their 2nd extensions, while other players like Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, and Joe Johnson were also coming up on unrestricted free agency. If you were a team that believed in quick fixes, this was the summer for you. While a handful of teams were trying their hardest to unload as much salary as possible, the other teams were more than willing to take on decent players (salary) and first round picks.

The Thunder had assets galore in the 2010 draft with 3 picks in the first round (18, 21, and 26) and 2 picks in the second round (32 and 51). The consensus with most teams is that you don’t head into training camp with five rookies. So, the Thunder knew they had to wheel and deal to get what they wanted in this draft, which was a defensive minded big man and more assets. Their first move was to trade the 32nd pick to Miami for the 18th pick and Daequan Cook. Miami was looking to cut salary to position themselves for the summer of Lebron. The Thunder knew they couldn’t get what they wanted at 18, so they traded it to the Clippers for a future first rounder. They eventually traded up to the 11th pick where they picked Cole Aldrich. The future first rounder from the Clippers helped to facilitate the trade with the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins at the trading deadline that following season.

benchmob

There are a lot of similarities between this offseason and the 2010 offseason. First off, the top tier in this free agency class includes some franchise players, such as Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, and Josh Smith. Secondly, these free agents are available and willing to hear out every offer on the table. Thirdly, there are team already vying to dump salary and 1st round draft picks to clear cap space. And, fourthly, the Thunder have the 32nd pick.

The story behind the 32nd pick is akin to the story of Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years in the book of Exodus. A little bit of controversy, a little bit of disobedience, and finally back to where it ultimately needed to be. On December 19, 2011, the Thunder traded Byron Mullens to the Charlotte Bobcats for their unprotected 2013 2nd round pick. Simple, right? Wrong! When the Thunder traded for Perkins, they sent Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green to Boston along with that Clippers draft pick. Everything was going good until doctors discovered the following season that Green was suffering from an aortic aneurysm, would need immediate surgery, and would miss the entire 2011-12 season. Boston contended that Oklahoma City knew of this condition previous to the trade. On June 16, 2012, the NBA decided to give Boston the Charlotte pick as compensation for the Green debacle. On July 20, 2012, the Celtics traded the pick to the Houston Rockets as part of a three team trade for guard Courtney Lee. Finally, on October 27, 2012, the pick was sent back to Oklahoma City as part of the James Harden trade. I’ve joked that, to everyone outside of Oklahoma City, the trade between OKC and Houston will be known as the James Harden trade. But to the people in Oklahoma City, the trade will be known as the “reacquisition of the Charlotte 2nd round pick” trade.

Oklahoma City is in prime position to make a significant move to improve their team in this draft. The rumor mill is already rampant with teams wanting to dump salary and picks for a chance at one of the top tier free agents. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo!Sports reported that Houston is looking to unload the No. 5 pick from last season’s draft, Thomas Robinson, in order to clear further cap space. Chad Ford of ESPN.com reported that the Dallas Mavericks were looking to trade away the No. 13 pick in order to avoid the $1.6 million cap hold that the pick carries. Also, Atlanta has picks 17 and 18, but are also looking to throw their hat in the free agency fray. There will be plenty of opportunities to nab a necessary piece on this draft day.

Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony

Also, there is one more thing to look out for in this draft. There might be an epic free agency class coming up next offseason. Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade all have early termination options to become free agents in 2014. Add to that, the 2014 NBA draft is predicted to be a lot stronger than this draft class, and you have the perfect storm for further wheelings and dealings. Look for the Thunder to not only get what they need in this draft, but also to pick up assets for the 2014 draft. Let the madness begin!

New York Knicks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 77 of 82)

knicks thunder

  • When: Sunday, 07 April 2013 at 12:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Part of the mission has been accomplished. As I mentioned in this previous article, the goal of the Thunder in the last 5 games was to catch up to the Spurs and at least tie them for the Western Conference lead. Now that that has been achieved, the Thunder hold their Western Conference destiny in their hands. All the Thunder have to do now is keep stride with the Spurs, and head into the playoffs with the number 1 seed.

The first step to that begins against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. With the San Antonio Spurs’ win against the Atlanta Hawks yesterday, they sit a half game ahead of the idle Thunder. It’s your move, Oklahoma City. The Thunder are currently playing their best basketball of season since the 23-4 stretch that began in late November. They’ve beat the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers in convincing fashion with close-out 4th quarter performances from their superstar duo.

The New York Knicks come into the game playing their best basketball of the season, having won 11 in a row. The streak, which is the best current streak in the league, can be attributed to 2 things: Carmelo Anthony (32.4 ppg) and JR Smith (23.9 ppg on 49.2% shooting) efficiently attacking teams offensively, and Tyson Chandler and, new addition, Kenyon Martin providing the muscle on the interior. Their margin of victory during the streak has been 13 points.

ny_u_jr-smith2_mb_576

It’s a funny thing that happens when you write about important stretches in a season. I had the last 5 games tabbed as the most important stretch of the season for the Thunder. But after taking care of business, this game now becomes the most important game of the season. It’s important, not only because we accomplished the goal of catching up to the Spurs, but, because, now, New York is the hottest team in the league. And they are winning by using the same formula that has hurt the Thunder in the past: dribble penetration, 3-point shooting, and 1-2 offensive stars that perform within a system. New York has surprisingly become a lot like Miami during this streak, and it will be a good litmus test for the Thunder moving forward.

Probable Starting Line-ups

New York Knicks

  • PG – Pablo Prigioni
  • SG – Raymond Felton
  • SF – Iman Shumpert
  • PF – Carmelo Anthony
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

Perimeter defense – With the absence of Amare Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby, the Knicks are hurting inside offensively. Anthony and Smith have actually pushed their games inwards during this streak, but are still very perimeter oriented. Felton is a lot like Andre Miller in that he does his damage by penetrating inside and uses his strength to power shots in. Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, and Prigioni are all ready to shoot 3-pointers at the hint of daylight. As is usually customary with Thunder coach Scott Brooks, when the Thunder get a player that was recently with another team, Brooks usually plays said player extended minutes when it’s against his old team. So, with that said, Ronnie Brewer, you’re up.

brewer

Match-up Land Mines – With the injuries to the Knicks’ front line, they have been forced to play small ball from the outset of games. With that said, do the Thunder really want Serge Ibaka guarding Carmelo Anthony at the start of the game? Or do they want Kevin Martin guarding JR Smith when the bench checks into the game? Or Derek Fisher guarding Raymond Felton? Knowing that Brooks has a very consistent substitution pattern, it will be very interesting to see how the Thunder adjust on defense. As I said before, this is a very good prelude to what Miami and Denver will do to us if we meet them in a future series.

anthony durant

Buckets – The elephant in the room. The scoring title may be up for grabs in this game. Kevin Durant leads Anthony by a tenth of a point (28.4 to 28.3, respectively). With Durant already saying that Anthony can have the scoring title, will team success have any bearing on whether any of these two players eases off the gas when it comes to scoring. Like Durant said, “I really wanted my first one (scoring title). Don’t get me wrong – – I never want to take stuff like that for granted. But if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to force it too much and think about it too much and try to get it.” The only thing for Durant, and Anthony as well, is that their games are about scoring. With as much as Durant has a tendency to stat-watch, will he try to get that extra point to one-up Anthony? Regardless, this game certainly reminds of the scoring title race in 1994, where David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal went back and forth on the scoring title till the last game of the season, where Robinson scored 71 points to finally take the scoring title. We can only hope that one of these two players puts up 50 in the game.

Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012-13 Midseason Review

This was supposed to be the year where the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden was supposed to put it all together and finally reach the mountain top. These four young men who had just competed (and medaled) in the Olympics were supposed to pick up where they had left off and continue on their improvement track. From 1st round losers to Western Conference Finals losers to NBA Finals losers, the eventual next step would have been NBA Finals winners. Everyone went into training camp with that mind set.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

And then, 5 days before the season started, in the middle of a stirring football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, came the shocking news that one of the quartet had been traded. James Harden, whose contract extension talks had stalled with the team, was traded, along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and 3 draft picks. It took several days before the jaws of Oklahomans throughout the state were picked up off the ground.

Once the shock wore off, and the trade was analyzed, it was one of those instances where it was a good trade for both teams. The Thunder got a comparable player in Martin, a good young guard in Lamb, assets in the form of draft picks, and salary cap flexibility. Championship contending teams usually never have assets and salary cap flexibility, but this trade gave that back to the Thunder before they had an opportunity to lose it. Houston, in return, got a franchise player in Harden. After clearing cap space and failing to land Dwight Howard in the offseason, the Rockets were chomping at the bit for a franchise-type guy. So far, it’s been a win-win for both teams.

kmart lamb

Whether we were ready for the season or not, it still had to be played. The schedule doesn’t care whether the Thunder made a big roster move five days before the start of the season. The schedule doesn’t care that the Thunder never got the opportunity to play any pre-season games with any of its new players. All the schedule decrees is that said team be at the location of the game with at least 8 dressed players. So with that, the Thunder embarked on the first half of the season.

November 1st, 2012 – November 4th, 2012 : The sky is falling!!!! Grab the women and children, and head to higher ground!!!!! (1-2)

After the core rattling trade five days prior, the Thunder had to open their season on the road against their Western Conference Finals opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. The game was back and forth most of the night with neither team controlling the game. In the final minute with the Spurs down by three, Tony Parker hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to tie the game. On the Thunder’s next possession, with the opportunity to take the lead, Russell Westbrook turned the ball over to give the Spurs one final shot. Tony Parker calmly sank a 21-footer at the buzzer to give the Spurs the victory.

parker

Of course, panic set in after that. Would the Thunder ever win another game again? Is this the beginning of the Curse of the Beard? Would we have won that game had James Harden not been traded? The second game was against the Portland Trailblazers in Oklahoma City. The Thunder easily dispatched of the Trailblazers in expected fashion. But that did little to quell the panic of the fan base, especially when Harden was in Houston averaging 35.3 points per game after the first three games of the season.

harden

The Thunder entered the third game of the season with high hopes. But after 21 turnovers and an inability to make shots in the second half, the Thunder lost to the Atlanta Hawks to bring their record to 1-2. Needless to say, some in the fan base were ready to jump off of the Devon Energy Tower.

Novemeber 6th, 2012 – November 23rd, 2012: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. (8-2)

This home heavy stretch against lesser opponents is just what the doctor ordered, not only for the team, but also for the fan base. After the Atlanta loss, the Thunder reeled off five straight win against 3 likely lottery teams (Cleveland, Detroit (x2), and Toronto), and one injury ravaged team (Chicago). It’s almost like the team had a mini training camp with these 5 games serving as preseason games. The players got a sense of what their roles were, and the coaching staff got a sense of how the rotation would work.

team

Then we played the Memphis Grizzlies, and got man-handled. The big boys (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) did work inside and Rudy Gay went all KD on the Thunder, hitting seemingly every big shot in the 4th quarter. The fear that engulfed the fan base at the beginning of the season changed from, “When will we win a game?” to “Will we be able to hang with the top teams in the West?”

Those fears were eased a little when the Thunder won their next 3 games, the final two being against Western Conference playoff hopefuls Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Against the Warriors, Kevin Durant notched his first career triple double with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Thunder went on the road and lost against the Boston Celtics after that in a close game. Overall, the feeling at this point in the season is that the Thunder were starting to get it together, but still had some kinks to work out.

November 24th, 2012 – December 19th, 2012: We’re going streaking!!!!! (12-0)

This is where the team seemed to put it all together. During this stretch of games, the Thunder beat their opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. The team averaged 108.6 points per game. That is an astonishing run. The winning percentage of the teams that the Thunder beat during this streak was .477, not necessarily power house numbers, but not necessarily the Sisters of the Poor, either.

There were some very important things that happened during the streak:

1)      We completely emasculated a team. In the second game of the streak, the Thunder beat the Charlotte Bobcats 114-69. The Bobcats were riding high coming into the game at 7-5, the same amount of victories as the previous season. The young Bobcats were looking to show what they could do against one of the big boys in the league. And the Thunder just beat them with their own stick. To a team that was still feeling itself out, this victory is just what they needed to prove to themselves that they could still run somebody out of the gym if necessary. The beating was so bad for the Bobcats that they did not win another game for the next month (17 games total after that).

2)      In the next game, the Thunder exorcised any demons from the trade and beat James Harden and the Houston Rockets handily, 120-98. While the game started off as a walk down memory lane, it quickly turned into an “us versus them” mentality when Harden had a spat that momentarily had Hasheem Thabeet ejected from the game. After that, Harden became another opponent that received boos. And the cherry on the top was that Harden completely struggled against the Thunder shooting 3-16 for 17 points, well below his average.

harden thabeet

3)      We dominated the Los Angeles Lakers at home 114-108. I know these aren’t the Lakers from a couple years ago. But this was the superteam that was constructed in the offseason to battle the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. When Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were added to the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, it sent shockwaves through the league that this would be the new team to beat. Though chemistry issues have kept the Lakers from achieving this, it was still good to beat them and let them know that we still run the West.

4)      We beat the Spurs handily at home 107-93. With the Lakers struggling, this team is probably our biggest rival. With the Western Conference Finals last season, and the close game the Spurs won to start the season, this was a pivotal matchup for the Thunder, not only record-wise, but mentally also.

December 20th, 2012 – January 7th, 2013 – Holiday sputter (5-4)

It’s a funny thing about perspective. If I were to tell you that we’ve won 17 of our last 21 games, you’d probably think that’s a pretty good run. But, if I told you that we’ve lost 4 of our last 9 games, you’d probably think that we are struggling a bit. This is where the Thunder found themselves at this point in the season. After winning 12 in a row, they lost on the road to an upstart Minnesota team that was just beginning to put it all together, before injuries once again derailed their season. Then, the Thunder lost on Christmas day to the Miami Heat. The one monkey that still hangs on the team’s back is the ability to consistently beat Miami.

russ miami

After the Miami loss, the Thunder went on to win 5 of their next 7. One of the losses was against the Davids of the NBA, or as I like to call them, the Washington Wizards. This Wizards team, with the worst record in the NBA, always seems to play its best against the Goliath’s of the league. They’ve already beaten the Heat once this season, and they beat the Thunder last season also. It’s just something about that slingshot.

January 9th, 2013 – January 20th, 2013 – Wonder Twins activate! (6-1)

This is what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done in the past 7 games:

  • KD – 35.9 points / 6.1 rebounds / 4.1 assists /1.7 steals / 1.3 blocks per game
  • RW – 29.0 points /6.7 rebounds /7.1 assists /1.0 steal per game

What these two guys have been doing the past two weeks has been nothing short of dominant. Durant had a career high 52 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks during this stretch. And Westbrook has notched 4 straight games of 30 points or more. It’s become a tradition that when the Thunder trade away a major player, someone steps up in his place. When Jeff Green was traded two seasons ago, Serge Ibaka and James Harden stepped up their games and the Thunder continued improving. This time around, when Harden was traded, Ibaka has elevated his game to another level, and the two superstars have gotten even better.

durant-westbrook

The Thunder ended the first half of the season with a 32-9 record, good for best in the league. They are the last team with single digit losses and have the best scoring differential in the league, at +9.0. Looking forward, the second half of the season will be a little bit tougher, though. The Thunder will have 3 more road games and the teams they’ll be facing have a combined .511 winning percentage. In the end, I see the Thunder ending up with the number 1 seed, not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA with a 63-19 record.

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.

darko

 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.

kd rw

 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.

lamb

 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.

jackson

 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. 

jones iii

 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.

The Thunder and the 2nd Seed

With San Antonio’s win over the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder were assured of the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. While it is disappointing that they stumbled in the last month of the season to fall to the 2nd spot, the fact still remains that this is progression in a positive direction. Three seasons ago they were challenging to become the worst team in league history. Two seasons ago they were a surprise 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to 6 games in their 1st round matchup. And last season they were the 4th seed and made it to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual champs, the Dallas Mavericks. Progression from here on out will be measured by what happens in the playoffs.

Now that the Thunder are set in their playoff seeding, it is time to look ahead and see how they match up with their potential opponents, both of whom are very familiar to the Thunder. The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are both battling for the 6th seed. The Nuggets hold a ½ game lead over the Mavericks and have 2 games remaining, the first of which is against the Thunder, and the last of which is against the “nothing to lose” Minnesota Timberwolves. The Mavericks have one game remaining, on the road, against the Atlanta Hawks, who may still be battling the Orlando Magic for seeding. The Mavericks hold the tie breaker if the teams finish with identical records.

Denver

The Denver Nuggets have become the Thunder’s regular whipping boys these last two seasons. Including the playoffs, the Thunder are 9-2 in the teams’ last 11 meetings. When these two teams meet, points will definitely be scored as it features 2 of the top 3 scoring teams in the league. The Thunder’s rate of success against this team is surprising because the Nuggets have a deep collection of talent at all positions. They feature 6 players that average double figures and 4 other players that average at least 8.6 points per game. That’s 10 players that average at least 8 points per game! The crux to all the scoring, though, is that no one on the team averages more than 16.3 points per game. In crunch time, this team lacks a clearly defined offensive star to score that necessary bucket.

Defensively, the Nuggets are the 3rd worst team in the league, allowing 101.2 points per game. They are a lot like the SSOL (Seven Seconds Or Less) Suns of the early 00’s, focusing a lot of their energy on transition opportunities and increased offensive usage. With the acquisition of Javale McGee and the increased playing time of rookie Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets have become even more of a transition team. But when the Nuggets play another offensively potent team that plays good defense, such as the Thunder, the Nuggets eventually run out of gas in the 4th quarter. That’s been their M.O. in most games that they play against the Thunder.

Dallas

The defending champion Mavericks are a bit of an enigma this season. They lost their defensive anchor (Tyson Chandler), their offensive sparkplug off the bench (JJ Barea), and had a failed offseason acquisition (Lamar Odom). They have been consistently inconsistent this entire season, alternating winning streaks with losing streaks. The Mavs ended the Thunder’s season last year in the Western Conference Finals, defeating them in 5 games. This season has been a different story, though, with the Thunder winning the season series 3-1.

The Mavericks are still led by Dirk Nowitzki, but his scoring average has dipped this season from 23 points per game to 21.6 points per game. A lot of their core is a year older and a step slower. The young players (Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, and Brendan Wright) are just now getting their feet wet and are playoff neophytes. This team is middle of the road in nearly every statistical category, but still has enough championship moxie to be considered dangerous. The defense has suffered with the departure of Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson, but is still in the top half of the league, allowing only 94.7 points per game.

So who do the Thunder want to face? They already dominated the Nuggets in the playoffs last season, and have continued that trend into this season. They were beat by the Mavs in 5 games last postseason, but held the lead in the 4th quarter in 3 of the 5 games, and have dominated the season series this year. Will we see a different Mavs team emerge in the playoffs? Will they be similar to the 1995 Houston Rockets team that won their second championship in a row as a 6th seed? The answer to both those question, in my opinion, is no. The Mavs team is a shell of what it was last season. They are building for the future (ahem, Deron Williams, ahem) by sacrificing a year of their present. The Thunder finish off both of these teams in 6 games tops. The real question becomes, who do the Mavs or Nuggets want to face; the Thunder or the Lakers?