Tag Archives: Cole Aldrich

Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks preview (Game 46 of 82)

stoudemire collison thunder knicks

  • When: Wednesday, 28 January 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

The roughest part of the schedule is behind us. The Thunder went 3-2 against some of the more elite teams in the Eastern Conference. They pushed their record above .500. Now, it’s go time in regards of getting at least to the 8th seed in the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns (the current 8th seed) have one of the toughest second half schedules in the league and the New Orleans Pelicans (the current 9th seed) have injury issues. Luckily, the Thunder still have two games against both these teams. In a way, the Thunder still control their fate in regards to getting to the playoffs.

This is the second and final meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder defeated the Knicks in late November, 105-78, in what was Russell Westbrook’s first game back from a broken hand. In that game, Westbrook tallied 32 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists in resounding “I’m baaaack” fashion. That game was missing the past two scoring champions, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, due to injury.

The Opponent

anthony galloway calderon smith knicks

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014-15 New York Knickerbockers. I have no idea where the wheels fell off with this team. I predicted they would sneak into the East playoffs at the beginning of the season. With a record of 8-37, the Knicks are currently tied with the 76ers for the second worst record in the league. The rank 29th in points scored per game and rebounding, and have an MOV of -8.0. Injuries have played a part, but chemistry and personnel have been the bigger issue. In turbulent times, though, when a team starts to trim the fat and rebuild itself anew, you sometimes find diamonds where there was only coal. Langston Galloway, an undrafted rookie free agent, has emerged as a consistent starter for the Knicks since his signing a week into the new year. He is averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3 assists per game in the last 4 games, with the Knicks recording a 3-1 record in those games. New York lost a lot of its guard depth in the trade that sent JR Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. So finding a player like Galloway has been a bit of a life saver for New York. The Knicks have been using Jose Calderon as the other guard, but he may be still recovering from a bruised knee suffered in their last game played. If he can’t go, expect Tim Hardaway Jr. to start in his place. Carmelo Anthony has had a most disappointing season and appears to be on the “Play one game, miss one game” veteran plan. He can still fill up the scoreboard (24.1 points per game), but appears to be looking towards April instead of any game in January – April. If he can’t go, look for former Thunder player Lance Thomas to take his place. Probably the most consistent players for the Knicks this season have been Amar’e Stoudemire and Cole Aldrich. Now, consistent doesn’t necessarily mean great, or even good for that matter, but it’s a start. Unfortunately, those two players come off the bench in favor of Lou Amundson and Jason Smith. Another veteran that provides good minutes off the bench is Pablo Prigioni.

New York Knicks

  • PG – Langston Galloway
  • SG – Tim Hardaway Jr.
  • SF – Carmelo Anthony
  • PF – Lou Amundson
  • C – Jason Smith

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Perry Jones
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Trap Game Potential – This just feels like one of those games where a Langston Galloway or a Tim Hardaway Jr. could erupt for 30-40 points on us. Many are looking at this game like a guaranteed win, but I see this game as a huge trap game. The Thunder are missing Kevin Durant and have been in an offensive slump in the past 4 games. With the Knicks on a bit of a hot streak, playing at home, and playing against their coach’s old team, I could see them coming out full bore against the Thunder.

2. Bench Production – With Durant out and the team struggling offensively, the bench stepped up to help the Thunder beat the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. They scored 45  points between four players (Reggie Jackson, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, and Nick Collison). Were they efficient? Not necessarily, but they put pressure on the Wolves and got a lot of open looks (some of which, they actually made). The Thunder reserves will likely have to be just as aggressive in this game.

westbrook roberson thunder

3. Russell Westbrook – Westbrook is such a nice guy. Every time he sees a player, especially a rookie, that is playing well, he wants to absolutely destroy that player to let them know he exists. Langston Galloway, you’re next on the list. Initiate “New Point Guard Destruction” protocols.

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2013 OKC Thunder Draft: A Postscript

2013 NBA Draft

The NBA draft to me is a time of hope. Whether your team has the first pick or the last pick in the draft, there’s always a sense of optimism that the guy your team drafted is destined for great things. And that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the draft. When the Thunder started becoming one of the better teams in the league, their position on the draft board started rising into the late first round. Their draft position from the last 5 seasons went as followed: 4th (still as the Seattle Supersonics), 3rd, 18th, 24th, and 28th. Even with those high draft numbers though, we’ve been able to get good players late in the draft, namely Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones III.

Flash back to October 28th, 2012. As soon as the details of the James Harden trade came out, and I saw that we got a first round pick from what was almost guaranteed to be a lottery team (Toronto) and a 2nd round pick, which was almost guaranteed to be in the lower to mid 30’s (Charlotte), I started paying more attention than usual to the 2013 NBA draft. I would visit sites dedicated specifically to the draft (NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com) and would study up on the prospects. I knew how to spell Giannis Adetokunbo before he Greek-a-nized his last name to Antetokounmpo.

For a team that was on the cusp of a championship the season before, the lottery pick could have been the final piece in the championship puzzle. While it is true that the Thunder gave up a big piece in Harden, having a possible lottery pick may have made finding his replacement a bit easier. Also, the possibility of drafting a good player on a rookie salary for, at least, 4 seasons is like manna from heaven for a team teetering on the luxury tax line.

Needless to say, when the Thunder were eliminated in the 2nd round of the playoffs, my focus quickly switched to the NBA draft. With two picks in the first round, No. 12 and 29, and one early pick in the second round, No. 32, in what was deemed to be a weak draft, my expectations were that we weren’t going to be using all the picks. By most accounts, the teams in the top 5 weren’t necessarily exalting the selection of prospects at the top of the board. I thought the Thunder were going to do something big (i.e. trade up or trade for good veteran player).

It’s a funny thing about expectations, though. They can sometimes cloud your vision. When the picks started coming in, and guys that I thought were high on the Thunder’s draft board (Alex Len, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, and CJ McCollum) started dropping, I thought it was prime time to make a trade and move up. But as those players started getting drafted, and every “We have a trade,” from David Stern yielded nothing for the Thunder, I started to feel disappointment.

len, noel, mclemore

As the draft went along and we only made minor moves, I literally had a feeling of utter dejection about this draft. I mean, this was the “Harden redemption” draft. We were supposed to get ourselves a blue chip prospect to join with Jeremy Lamb in order to have a feeling of success when it came to the James Harden trade. And it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the players we drafted. It just felt like we let a golden opportunity go by without even trying to do anything.

But, alas, a little bit of sleep and a little bit of retrospect usually puts things into perspective. The more I thought about the players we got in this draft, the more I liked it. First off, this was not your draft if you are into instant gratification. This was a developmental draft, just like the last two drafts for the Thunder have been developmental drafts (Jackson, Lamb, and Jones III). As I analyzed this draft, I saw that we obtained players that will greatly help us in the future.

 

No. 12 – Steven Adams – C, University of Pittsburgh

adams draft

The Thunder don’t necessarily have a good track record with it comes to centers. Since they’ve arrived in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have drafted two flame-outs and one Eurostash: Byron Mullens, Cole Aldrich, and Tibor Pleiss. The carryovers from the Seattle days (Mouhamed Sene, Robert Swift, and Johan Petro) were 21 feet of nothingness, and the current placeholder, Kendrick Perkins, just posted a negative PER in the playoffs. To say that the center position is a position of need is an understatement.

The 7 footer from New Zealand is a late bloomer, but has the tools to be successful in the NBA. He’s an athletic big man with quick feet known for his defense. He won’t be asked to contribute immediately and may spend a good deal of his rookie season in Tulsa playing for the Tulsa 66ers. With two of the top 10 players in the NBA in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder don’t necessarily need an offensive savant in the middle. What they do need is someone that can move around, play defense, grab rebounds, catch a pass, and finish when they are within 5 feet of the basket. I have no doubt that Adams will be able to do that.

 

No. 26 – Andre Roberson – SF-PF, University of Colorado

Roberson from the University of Colorado shakes hands with NBA Commissioner Stern after being selected by the Timberwolves as the 26th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft in Brooklyn

This pick was a bit of head-scratcher to me. Not necessarily the pick itself, but the fact that the Thunder moved up 3 spots (albeit just for cash) to make the selection. Roberson was creeping up on every mock drafts, but wasn’t in line to be picked in the first round. Every mock draft had him falling to the beginning of the second round. Why the Thunder felt the need to move up to grab him? We may never know. Being that he is a Kawhi Leonard-like player, maybe the Thunder caught wind that the San Antonio Spurs were looking to draft him with the 28th pick.

Roberson is a bit of an enigma. He’s 6’7, but has a 6’11 wingspan and was second in the NCAA in rebounding at 11.2 per game. Also, he’s one of the premier defenders in college. Those traits usually translate very well to the pro game. His offensive game is a different story. He struggles for consistency on the perimeter, but excels if he gets close to basket on dribble drives, cuts, and offensive put back. Because of this, he is often compared to Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.

rodman

In a system and on a team that values players that can guard multiple positions, Roberson should eventually find a spot in the rotation as a defender. It wouldn’t surprise me if Roberson saw the most minutes with the Thunder of all the Thunder rookies.

 

No. 32 – Alex Abrines – SG-SF, FC Barcelona (Spanish ACB League)

alex abrines

Abrines is a stash pick that will probably stay in Europe for 1-2 more seasons. He asked teams not to drat him late in the first round, as the guaranteed money would be less and he would probably have to fit some of the bill for his buyout. The Thunder took a chance and drafted him with the second pick of the second round. He is a smooth shooting wing player with a flair for the dramatic that many have compared to Rudy Fernandez and Drazen Petrovic.

At 19 years of age, Abrines will have to improve his game and strengthen his body before he’ll be able to compete in the NBA. The only negative for the Thunder is that Abrines is young enough to improve to the point where going the NBA would not make financial sense, causing him to stay in Europe for the rest of his professional career.

 

No. 40 – Grant Jerrett – PF, University of Arizona (selected by Portland, traded to Oklahoma City for cash considerations)

grant jerrett

Just when I thought there was no way we would draft three rookies to actually play on the team this upcoming season, the team goes and acquires a shooting big man in the 2nd round. At 6’10, Jerrett showed great potential as a shooter and as a stretch 4 in the NBA. At this point though, perimeter shooting is his only noticeable strength. Jerrett has a tool the team needs, but will need to put in a lot of work to make the opening day roster. He may be a Ryan Anderson-type player, but he may have benefited from another season in college. If his strengths don’t outweigh his weaknesses in Summer League and during the preseason, Jarrett, as a second rounder, is a good candidate to not make the team.

thunder team

Surprisingly, this draft said more about the players already on the team than those that were drafted. The team’s unwillingness to part with Jackson, Lamb, or Jones III to move up showed the confidence the team has in the young guys, and shows how the team values cohesiveness and development. With three rookies on the roster, look for the team to try to sign one or two veteran free agents to even out the youth on the bench.

Trains of Thought: Thunder and the 2013 Draft

NBA: NBA Draft

Approaching a draft, there are always differing trains of thought as to whom a team should choose. A team has to analyze what their needs are and if they can realistically draft a player that will fill said need(s). This is especially true if you are holding one of the lottery picks. Teams picking in these first 14 slots usually have a plethora of needs to address. But for a championship contending team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have many of the necessary cogs already in place, a pick in the lottery can be the final piece of the puzzle to get the team over the hump. 

darko

Drafting a final piece is not always guaranteed to get a team over the hump, though. In the summer of 2003, the Detroit Pistons had just come off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and also held the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft, which was loaded at the top. Easy pickings, right? Get the 2nd best player available and you should be set for the next 5 years. But success and good fortune can sometimes make you think you are smarter than you really are. In a draft where the Pistons could have chosen any of Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, or Chris Bosh, they instead decided to go with the experimental Euro-project named Darko Milicic. Even though the Pistons won the championship the next season, it had nothing to do with Milicic, who was famously tagged as the “human victory cigar” due to the bulk of his playing time coming at the end of blowout victories. The Pistons went on to lose in the NBA Finals in the next season and played in 3 consecutive Eastern Conference Finals after that. Add that up, and in a 6 year span, the Pistons played in 6 consecutive ECFs, went to the Finals twice, and won one championship. Nothing is guaranteed, but I think the number of championships would have increased if the Pistons had drafted one of the other players mentioned above. 

Granted, this draft is not as loaded as the 2003 draft was. But the Thunder find themselves in a position to draft a position of need, instead of having to pay for it through free agency or trade for it. There are probably two trains of thought for what type of the player the Thunder should draft with the 12th pick: either a defensive minded big man capable of developing some semblance of an offensive game or a scoring wing adept at making perimeter shots. In other words, either a replacement for Kendrick Perkins or a replacement for James Harden. The big man pick is more targeted towards future success, while the perimeter wing would be for more immediate results.

pacers

The conference finals and NBA Finals have given the Thunder a blueprint as to what they need for sustained success. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers showed what two competent big men can do against the Miami Heat. David West and Roy Hibbert gobbled up offensive rebounds and scored in the paint, almost at will. In the Finals, the San Antonio Spurs have shown that playing the same brand of basketball as the Heat (dribble penetration and 3-point shooting) can befuddle and frustrate them, especially if the opponent is hitting 3-pointers at a 45% clip.

Train of Thought No. 1 – Big Man

perk ii

Everybody knows I love crazy uncle Perk (Kendrick Perkins). For a person who grew up on 90’s basketball, Perkins’ style of play harks back to that physical era. But, truth be told, he laid a complete goose egg in the playoffs this season. He surprisingly had a better run last post season when he played with a torn groin and a torn ligament in his wrist. That Perkins has no semblance of an offensive game is a known fact. But that is usually masked by constant attacking nature of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. When Westbrook went out with his knee injury in the first round of the playoffs, that lack of an offensive game led to the further stagnation of an offense that was already compromised. It wasn’t just that Perkins couldn’t get the ball in the basket, it’s that he was a walking turnover. He had a negative PER in the playoffs and was a liability not just on the offensive end, but also on the defensive end. I didn’t even know negative PERs existed.

Needless to say, with 2 seasons left on Perkins’ contract, it may be time to start looking for his replacement sooner rather than later. Picking up a big man at this slot would be a pick for the future, as big men generally take longer to develop and no post player in this draft has that “ready to play now” look to them.

Before deciding what type of big man could be drafted, it’s important to see what is already in the cupboard. Besides Perkins, the other starter is Serge Ibaka, one of the most versatile power forwards in the NBA. In addition to leading the league in blocks for the 2nd consecutive season, Ibaka also has a deadly midrange game that occasionally stretches out to the 3-point line. His next stage of development should be to learn a post move or two. Off the bench, Nick Collison is a heady post player who plays good defense, can score inside, and can occasionally hit a midrange jumper. The only negative with Collison is that he is getting long in the tooth and starting to show signs of that. Hasheem Thabeet is an average center who is just now learning how to contribute 10-12 solid minutes per game. Perry Jones III is still in the initial stages of his development, but has the physical tools to become a solid contributor. And Daniel Orton is probably the odd man out in the game of big man roulette.

adams noel

Any post player selected will be drafted with the intent to eventually be the starting center. The Thunder tried that 3 seasons ago with Cole Aldrich, but he never panned out. If the Thunder’s system remains similar for the next 3-5 seasons, a player with Perkins’ toughness and defensive chops, but better offensive potential would probably be the selection. Players that fall in that category would be Alex Len, Steven Adams, Mason Plumlee, and Gorgui Dieng. If the Thunder decides to go for an offensive-minded big man, look for them to select Kelly Olynyk or Cody Zeller.

Train of Thought No. 2 – Perimeter Wing

harden

The Thunder have a little more flexibility here than with the center position. When the Thunder made the trade with Houston, they not only traded Harden, but also Daequan Cook. These floor spacers are very important when the bulk of your offense is dependent on two perimeter oriented players. The drive and dish becomes a lot more driving into defensive walls if the dishees aren’t reliable 3-point shooters, especially in the playoffs.

Seeing as the NBA is becoming more of a drive and dish league, having penetrators and 3-point shooters is tantamount to a team’s success. It used to be that if you had a great big man, you were almost guaranteed a deep playoff run. That began to change with the elimination of hand checking. Once that happened, it unshackled quick wing players to have a more prominent role in the offense. No longer were defenders able to keep quicker players at an arm’s length, thus eliminating their speed advantage. Now, defenses had to converge on the quicker players, which opened up shooters on the perimeter, especially on the 3-point line. And, as any kindergartener will tell you, 3 is more than 2 any day of the week.

Looking at the Thunder’s inventory when it comes to wing players, the Thunder already have two of the best dribble penetrators in the league, in Durant and Westbrook. Add to that Reggie Jackson, and the team has their fair share of attackers on the offensive end. What’s lacking on the team is the amount of shooters. Thabo Sefolosha has improved his 3-point shooting to the point where he’s effective, but his slow release make him a liability against teams with long defenders. Kevin Martin was, for the most part, an effective perimeter shooter, but his inconsistency and disappearing act in key games, proved to be a big problem for the Thunder. DeAndre Liggins is on the team for defensive purposes, and Jeremy Lamb was never given a chance to show his shooting chops on the NBA level, though he was very effective in the D-League.

ben-mclemore-dunk

There are two choices for where the team wants to go with this train of thought. One choice is an instant offense type player off the bench. If this is the way the Thunder may be leaning, then look for them to choose CJ McCollum or Shabazz Muhammad. If the Thunder are looking for more of a complete player to eventually take over the shooting guard spot, then the options become Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Thunder will go into draft day with a couple players in mind and counter moves for each situation. In my opinion, the Thunder are extremely high on about 5 players: McLemore, Len, McCollum, Adams, and Oladipo. I think it’ll all be dependent on where the players fall. If McLemore or Len slip down to the 4-6 range, I think the Thunder will throw every possible trade, not involving Durant, Westbrook, or Ibaka, at those teams in that range.

The good thing is that the Thunder have options. Their high 2nd round pick affords them the possibility of obtaining an extra first round pick from a team looking to involve themselves in this year’s free agency. The ability to put a package together with multiple 1st round picks and young players can be very enticing to a team that is rebuilding. Soon enough, it’ll be draft day and Thunder GM Sam Presti will be able to put his plan into play.

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!

Exit Interviews: Thunder roster and outlooks

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Durant walks with his head down after a teammate fouled a Memphis Grizzlies player in Game 5 of their NBA Western Conference semi-final playoffs in Oklahoma City.

With Oklahoma City’s 84-88 loss to the Memphis Grizzles in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-finals, the Thunder find themselves in an unfamiliar place: out of the playoffs before the conference finals even begin. As everyone knows, the major cause of that early exit was the season ending knee injury to Russell Westbrook in Game 2 of the Thunder’s first round match up against the Houston Rockets. After dispatching those pesky Rockets in 6 games, The Thunder found themselves matched up against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Though every game was close, the Thunder eventually succumbed due to late game execution issues and an inability to find a consistent secondary scorer to pair with Kevin Durant.

Whenever a season ends, be it in mid-April at the conclusion of the regular season or mid-June at the conclusion of the NBA Finals, every team holds exit interviews with each player and coach on their team. Exit interviews serve two purposes: either to tell the person what to work on for the next season or to advise the person of their intentions in regards to extensions or standing on the team. With the Thunder’s ouster, it’s time to hold exit interviews with certain people on the team.

Scott Brooks – Head Coach

brooks

  • Season Record – 60 – 22 (.732)
  • Season Review – Amid an earth shattering trade at the beginning of the season, Brooks kept the Thunder ship afloat with his calm demeanor and positive approach to player management. He fostered the chemistry that eventually formed from a team in flux and guided the Thunder to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and the 2nd best record in the league. In the playoffs, though, after the loss of Westbrook, the simplistic formations on the offensive side of the ball played right into the Grizzlies hands. With them only having to control one superstar, the Grizzlies continuously harassed Durant while the offense looked completely out of sync at times.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $4.0 million
  • View from the Front Office – This coach is a rock of stability. He’s never too high and never too low, which is a positive trait for such a young team (yes, they are still young). He always protects his players in the public and in the media and never resorts to “media-driven” motivation tactics. He’s improved every year in the regular season and, if not for a freak injury to one of his star players, probably would’ve kept on that upward plane. His stubbornness is both a gift and a curse though. It gives the players a sense of comfort and organization, but it also neuters the development of some of the younger players on the NBA stage.
  • Future Outlook – A team doesn’t show 4 consecutive years of improvement on talent alone. Brooks has had as much a hand in the Thunder’s ascension as has Durant and Westbrook. But, this postseason has knocked a little of the luster off Brooks’ shine. His lack of a contingency plan when Westbrook went down may foreshadow the beginnings of an ugly truth. The realization that Brooks has entrusted the lion’s share of the offense on 2 players, while never developing a fall-safe system in case one of the two got hurt may eventually be his downfall.

Ronnie Brewer – Guard/Forward

brewer

  • Season Averages (w/OKC) – 10.1 mins /0.9 pts /2.9 rebs /0.7 asts /0.6 stls /0.0 blks (14 games)
  • Season Review – The Thunder obtained Brewer from the New York Knicks in a trade deadline deal for a 2014 2nd round pick. When he was first acquired, I had visions of Brewer being a big wing defender to help against the likes of Lebron James. But Brewer never saw much playing time and played in only one postseason game.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – Unknown as player is an unrestricted free agent
  • View from the Front Office – Brewer is a great end of the bench option as a big wing defender. But, offensively, he was atrocious. The hitch on his jumper seems to have gotten worse and his offensive confidence seems to have been shot on the few opportunities he had out there on the floor for the Thunder. Through the tough times though, Brewer remained a consummate professional and said all the right things in public.
  • Future Outlook – Ronnie Brewer, we hardly knew ya. Unfortunately, we never got to see if the acquisition of Brewer would be helpful against the Lebrons of the world. I hope he got to see the Murrah Building Memorial and the Museum of Osteology, because I don’t think he’ll be back in Oklahoma City next season.  

Nick Collison – Forward/Center

collison randolph

  • Season Averages – 19.5 mins /5.1 pts /4.1 rebs /1.5 asts /0.6 stls /0.4 blks
  • Season Review – Collison was one of the stabilizing forces for the Thunder when the trade at the beginning of the season went down. He anchored the bench unit until Kevin Martin started feeling comfortable with his role, and even developed a great 2-man game with Martin along the way. Collison did what does best throughout the season: rebound, play smart defense, and provide a little bit of offense whenever necessary.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $2.59 million
  • View from the Front Office – Though there are signs of slowing down, Collison is still performing at a high level for a back-up big man. Also, his decreasing salary is not a hindrance to the team’s cap structure. Has a future in coaching when his playing days are over with.  
  • Future Outlook – Collison is a main stay on the team. His small salary and production make him a must for a championship contending team that is hovering around the luxury tax line.

Kevin Durant – Forward

durant

  • Season Averages – 38.5 mins /28.1 pts /7.9 rebs /4.6 asts /1.4 stls /1.3 blks
  • Season Review – 50/40/90. That’s all you need to know about this season. Durant averaged career highs in assists, steals, and blocks, while decreasing his turnovers. He became amazingly efficient at scoring the basketball and could have averaged more points if he wanted to. Durant became more of a playmaker in the absence of James Harden and had the best season of his career.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $18.77 million
  • View from the Front Office – The team couldn’t ask more from their superstar player. A scoring savant that wants to be great at all facets of the game. Has a work ethic that matches his scoring ability. Consummate professional and image conscious. A dream to have on your team.
  • Future Outlook – Durant (along with Westbrook) will continue to be the pillars upon which the team’s championship aspirations will rest upon. Durant has improved some facet of his game every year since he got into the league, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do that during this offseason. I will say this though: Kevin, you’ve had a crazy 18 months of basketball with hardly any break. Rest this offseason. Work on getting stronger, but give your body the break it deserves.

Derek Fisher – Guard

d fisher

  • Season Averages (w/OKC) –14.4 mins /4.1 pts /0.9 rebs /0.7 asts /0.6 stls /0.0 blks
  • Season Review – For the second consecutive year, Fisher joined the Thunder after the trading deadline to help provide a spark off the bench. While he had some rough stretches shooting the ball while working himself back into shape, he eventually found his stroke in the playoffs, which proved to be very helpful when Westbrook went down with his injury.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – Unknown as player is an unrestricted free agent
  • View from the Front Office – Veteran leadership and outside shooting. Those are the things that Fisher brings to the table. Undersized combo guard that can burn red hot or ice cold. Like most of the vets on the team, provides the team with a calming presence. Defensively capable, but age and lack of height can get the best of him at times.
  • Future Outlook – It would not surprise me one bit if history repeated itself for a 3rd time next season. The players seem to enjoy Fisher’s presence and he fills a niche for the team. I think a lot will be dependent on roster spot availability and how the young guys develop (Lamb, Liggins, Jackson, and any future draft pick).

Serge Ibaka – Forward/Center

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Season Averages – 31.1 mins /13.2 pts /7.7 rebs /0.5 asts /0.4 stls /3.0 blks
  • Season Review – Ibaka was asked to step up offensively after the Harden trade, and he did, averaging career highs in points, FG attempts, 3pt FG attempts, and rebounds. He became one of the best mid-range shooters in the game and also added a corner 3 to his burgeoning repertoire. He became the mid-range release valve in the Thunder’s offense that had been missing since the team traded away Nenad Krstic two seasons ago. Ibaka also continued his dominance as a paint protector and continued his development as a one on one post defender. Ibaka’s effort on the defensive end earned him All-Defense 1st Team honors.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $12.5 million
  • View from the Front Office – One of the foundational players of the organization. He’s the superstar of defense and balances out the two offensive superstars on the team. A team-first guy as evidenced by taking less money on his extension than he probably would have gotten in free agency. As scary as it sounds, he is still developing and still learning the game.
  • Future Outlook – Again, one of the pillars of the franchise. He is the defensive yin to Durant and Westbrook’s offensive yang. Having signed his full extension, Ibaka should be a part of the Thunder’s future for the next 3-4 seasons. Hopefully he continues to develop his game, especially his post game and ability to create his own shot.

Reggie Jackson – Guard

allen jackson

  • Season Averages – 14.2 mins /5.3 points /2.4 rebs /1.7 asts /0.4 stls /0.2 blks
  • Season Review – After starting the season as the 3rd point guard on the roster, Jackson was sent to the Tulsa 66ers in December for a couple games of development. His per game averages for those 3 games: 28.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.3 assists on 60/36/100 shooting. Shortly after that stint, the Thunder brass decided that Jackson was ready to be the full time back-up point guard in place of the struggling Eric Maynor. Jackson played steadily throughout the year, showing glimpses of possibly becoming a great combo guard in the league. After Russell Westbrook went down in the 2nd game of the playoffs, Jackson took over and played well enough to keep the Thunder afloat.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $1.33 million
  • View from the Front Office – When you have superstars making superstar money, you need good young players that are still on their rookie deals to contribute. That’s where Jackson comes into play. He, along with a couple of the other young Thunder players, will be the foundation of the bench and the gap fillers on the roster. How they continue to develop may determine how far the Thunder go in the future. Jackson proved during his run in the playoffs, that he is an effective pressure player, making clutch free-throws to ice games, but also young enough to make mistakes at critical times.
  • Future Outlook – If Jackson develops his jumper this summer, he could very well become a 6th man of the year candidate. Defensively, he has the ability to guard most guards in the NBA and will be an effective crunch-time player moving forward. Best case scenario is that Jackson becomes a Harden-type player off the bench.

Perry Jones III – Forward

jones da iii

  • Season Averages – 7.4 mins /2.3 pts /1.6 rebs /0.3 asts /0.1 stls /0.2 blks (38 games)
  • NBADL Averages – 32.5 mins /14.3 pts /7.3 rebs /1.7 asts /1.2 stls /0.6 blks (15 games)
  • Season Review – A lottery talent that surprisingly dropped to the Thunder with the 28th pick, Jones was used sparingly on the Thunder’s roster this season, but was a major player with the Tulsa 66ers.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $1.08 million
  • View from the Front Office – Tremendous athlete that dropped in the draft because of injury and motor concerns. A front court tweener that hasn’t yet found his niche in the league. Is he a stretch 4, a huge 3, or an undersized 5? A player that has amazing potential and upside, but needs to pick what he wants to be and start working on that. Part of the young core of the team that will make up the bulk of the bench.
  • Future Outlook – Jones will need to continue working on his mid-range jumper. He has the ability to make it, but needs to be more consistent. Also, needs to bulk up, as he is too skilled to just be a stretch 4. His motor issues may come into play in how much he wants to work on developing his game. According to Jones’ exit interview, he will be staying in Oklahoma City during the offseason to work with the Thunder’s staff on bulking up. I’m sure the organization and player in tune in how they want Jones to develop.

Jeremy Lamb – Guard

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  • Season Averages – 6.4 mins /3.1 pts /0.8 rebs /0.2 asts /0.1 stls /0.1 blks (23 games)
  • NBADL Averages – 32.8 mins /21.0 pts /5.3 rebs /3.0 asts /1.2 stls /0.8 blks (21 games)
  • Season Review – Lamb was one of the players sent over from Houston in the Harden trade. Although he did not get many minutes with the Thunder, he was, arguably, the MVP of the Tulsa 66ers.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $2.11 million
  • View from the Front Office – Probably the key component for the Thunder in the Harden trade. His development as an outside shooter and wing defender could determine whether this trade was a success. Good outside shot already. Very athletic. Has the tools to be a good to great defender. Needs to add bulk. Part of young core of bench players.
  • Future Outlook – Lamb’s development is extremely important to the franchise’s continuation of success. Has the skill set to be a starting 2-guard in the NBA. Needs to work this summer on consistently making his outside shot, as that will be his role on this team moving forward.

DeAndre Liggins – Guard/Forward

d liggs

  • Season Averages – 7.4 mins /1.5 pts /1.4 rebs /0.4 asts /0.5 stls /0.1 blks (39 games)
  • NBADL Averages – 34.2 mins /11.6 pts /6.9 rebs /4.3 asts /1.7 stls /0.4 blks (19 games)
  • Season Review – Liggins was a long shot to make the roster at the beginning of training camp, but showed enough defensively to be given the final roster spot. He was used primarily as a wing defender with the Thunder and also spent significant time with the Tulsa 66ers. In the playoffs, Liggins was used as a perimeter defender in the Houston series.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – Unknown – Conflicting reports whether Liggins’ contract was only for one season or whether the Thunder can opt into any team option years. Liggins most likely is an unrestricted free agent.
  • View from the Front Office – With the paradigm shift on offensive philosophy changing quickly in the NBA (lane penetration and 3-point shooting), having a young wing defender that can develop some semblance of an offensive game is a plus. Liggins showed a developing offensive game with his corner 3 and ability to drive.
  • Future Outlook – If Liggins is a free agent, he would be one of my top priorities in the offseason. He can be signed for cheap and will provide some defensive stability for the 2nd unit. Has the skill set, with the Thunder organization, to be a starting SG in the Thabo Sefolosha mold. Must develop a consistent 3-point shot and get a little bit stronger.

Kevin Martin – Guard/Forward

k martin zbo

  • Season Averages – 27.7 mins /14.0 pts /2.3 rebs /1.4 asts /0.9 stls /0.1 blks
  • Season Review – Martin was one of the players acquired in the Harden trade. After being a starter with free reign for most of his career, Martin had to adjust to coming off the bench with the Thunder. He was basically put in the Harden role and was expected to produce quick offense once he entered the game. He struggled with consistency in his new role. As the season went on, though, he seemed to assimilate a little better, and was being more consistent by the end of the season. In the playoffs, his inconsistency proved to be a detriment in the absence of Westbrook.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – Unknown as player is an unrestricted free agent.
  • View from the Front Office – Martin was brought in to be a stop gap for Harden’s role on the team. Great shooter that struggles with consistency at times. Used to be able to draw fouls in bunches earlier in his career, but now resorts to strictly being a spot-up shooter. Tends to disappear when his shot is not falling. His game can be predicted with what happens with his first couple of shots. Struggles defensively. Can be a great piece off the bench, but asking price may be too high.
  • Future Outlook – I was on the Kevin Martin contract extension bandwagon earlier this season, but his offensive inconsistencies and defensive struggles, coupled with his probable mid to high asking price (probably starting at $6 million and up), have me thinking that other options may be a better way to go. For what Martin gives the team, the Thunder may be able to find a cheaper replacement that may be as consistent of a shooter, while being better defensively.

Daniel Orton – Center

d orton

  • Season Averages – 8.0 mins /2.5 pts /2.0 rebs /0.3 asts /0.3 stls /0.2 blks (13 games)
  • NBADL Averages – 28.2 mins /12.5 pts /7.8 rebs /1.9 asts /1.1 stls /2.2 blks (29 games)
  • Season Review – Brought in after the Harden trade to fill in a roster spot, Orton has played sparingly with the Thunder, spending most of the season with the Tulsa 66ers.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – Unknown. A lot like Liggins’ contract situation, there are conflicting reports as to whether Orton’s contract was only for one season or whether the Thunder can opt into any team option years. Orton most likely is an unrestricted free agent.
  • View from the Front Office – Developmental project that will take time. Has shown flashes of being able to play some minutes in the NBA. Big, strong frame that can clear space. Has to learn how to use that frame to get rebounds and play positional defense without fouling. Needs to be more offensively aggressive, as his size . Injury prone.
  • Future Outlook – Depending on who and how many the Thunder draft, Orton may be candidate to come back as that last big off the bench. A little bit more time in the D-League will do nothing but help his development. He seems to be close to putting it all together and being a small time contributor on this team.

Kendrick Perkins – Center

gasol perk

  • Season Averages – 25.1 mins /4.2 pts /6.0 rebs /1.4 asts /0.6 stls /1.1 blks
  • Season Review – Perkins does what he does. Rebound. Defend the paint. Intimidate opponents. He had his ebbs and flows throughout the season, but was still an integral part of a 60 win team. In the playoffs, though, came into question as he was a liability in the Houston series and was partially ineffective in the Memphis series.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $8.48 million
  • View from the Front Office – Stingy post defender. Struggles offensively due to general immobility caused by prior injuries and natural slowness. Surprisingly, guards wing players well in short periods of time on pick and roll switch outs. High basketball IQ, especially defensively and in the post. Great teammate and veteran.
  • Future Outlook – Probably gets saved from the amnesty clause due to the fact that it makes no sense, financially, to cut a player that you’ll still have to pay, and that still has some value. Perkins’ skills have steadily declined every season he has been in OKC. I believe Perkins will still be the starting center come the first game of 2013-14, but his minutes will be severely reduced throughout the season depending on match-ups.

Thabo Sefolosha – Guard/Forward

Thabo Sefolosha, Tony Allen

  • Season Averages – 27.5 mins /7.6 pts /3.9 rebs /1.5 asts /1.3 stls /0.5 blks
  • Season Review – Sefolosha was a lot more aggressive offensively this season, averaging 3.2 three point shot attempts per game, making them at a 42% clip. He also shot a career high 48% overall, while scoring his highest full season scoring average since arriving in Oklahoma City. Sefolosha’s bread and butter, though, is as a premier wing defender, and he excelled at that again this season.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $3.9 million
  • View from the Front Office – One of the better wing defenders in the league. Long, but strong enough to bang with some of the bigger wings in the NBA. Improved 3-point shooter. Good ball handler that can make mistakes in the open floor. Consummate professional.
  • Future Outlook – Sefolosha is in the final year of his contract. He has value as a wing defender, and may be a tradable asset in the near future. While I would love to sign Sefolosha to an extension, it may make more sense, financially, to go with one of the younger options that are waiting in the wings (Liggins or Lamb).

Hasheem Thabeet – Center

hash zbo

  • Season Averages – 11.7 mins /2.4 pts /3.0 rebs /0.2 asts /0.5 stls /0.9 blks
  • Season Review – Coming into the season, Thabeet was thought to be battling it out with Cole Aldrich for the back-up center position. After the Harden trade, Thabeet was given the reigns to the back-up center position, and performed surprisingly well. A draft bust as the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Thabeet has shined in his chance at redemption, focusing on defense and rebounding.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $915,852
  • View from the Front Office – Defensive minded big that has finally figured out how to play in the NBA. Strong-willed, as others would have probably folded when the word “bust” was used to describe their career. Uses his height and length well. Offensively challenged, but has good hands and can produce offensively, if put in the right position. Lack of lateral movement can lead to foul trouble. Has the ability to start if he can stay out of foul trouble.
  • Future Outlook – Thabeet has been a surprising success. While he will never live up to his No. 2 selection, he has the ability to carve out a long career as a back-up, and possibly, starting, center in the NBA. Now that he has gotten used to the speed of the game on the defensive side of the ball, it is time for him to work on his offensive skill set. He already has good hands, and for a center, that’s half the battle.

Russell Westbrook – Guard

rw hurt

  • Season Averages – 34.9 mins /23.2 pts /5.2 rebs /7.4 asts /1.8 stls /0.3 blks
  • Season Review – Westbrook’s value to this team was never more prevalent than when he missed most of the postseason due to a knee injury. The offense sputtered, the points in transition went drastically down, and the defenses keyed in entirely on Kevin Durant. Westbrook had a great regular season, and for stretches of time, was the best player in the league. This one man fast break constantly kept defenses on their heels and keyed one of the most prolific offenses in the NBA. His assist numbers went up, while his turnovers went down. And he averaged a career high in rebounds.
  • Salary for 2013-14 – $14.69 million
  • View from the Front Office – Electric athlete. One of the fastest players with the ball from end to end in the world. Explosive leaper that would like nothing more than to dunk on someone’s head. One of the quickest first steps, but also has the ability to stop on a dime and make mid-range jumpers. Gets a lot of elevation on his jump shots. Drafted as a defensive stopper, but gambles a lot at times, to the detriment of the defense. Improving 3-point shooter. Not very media friendly, but not mean-spirited, either.
  • Future Outlook – As Sam Presti stated in his exit meeting with the press, Westbrook and Durant are the “caretakers of the organization” and the “drivers of our culture”. I think both relish that role, especially Westbrook. He is the heart of the team, and how he goes, so does the team.

Memphis Grizzlies v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Five

Even though the playoff exit was a lot sooner than most of us expected, the future is indeed bright for this team. Take away the reckless dive at Westbrook’s knee by Patrick Beverly, and this team is likely playing against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. But, as they say, injuries are a part of the game. It’s a sentiment that could probably be echoed in Oakland (David Lee), Los Angeles (Kobe Bryant), and Chicago (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Kirk Heinrich, etc). Thankfully, Westbrook’s injury isn’t one that should affect him in the future. With the assets obtained in the Harden trade, it will be up to Thunder GM Sam Presti to make use of the toys he has to work with.

Full Circle: Harden trade revisited

james harden

There’s a reason why teams don’t like to trade core players within their own conference. The fact that you not only have to face them more times during the season, but also possibly in a playoff series, causes many teams to take lesser deals in order to trade a core player to another conference. That scenario now becomes a reality for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In their first round match-up with the 8th seeded Houston Rockets, the team will meet up with former 6th man extraordinaire James Harden. While the teams have already met three times before during the regular season, the stakes will undoubtedly be higher for these next 4-7 games.

The trade essentially comes full circle within the same season. When Harden was traded to the Rockets 4 days before the season started, many media pundits saw this as the first step back in a franchise that had progressed forward since it first stepped foot in the Great Plains in 2008.  Many wondered whether the team that many people had tabbed as the next great dynasty was finally beginning to succumb to the many ills that small market teams face. The new collective bargaining agreement, which was supposed to help small market teams with the concept of increased “player-sharing,” had actually robbed the model small market team of one of its superstars. Even the fans, those crazy, loyal, Oklahoma City fans, questioned whether the billionaire owners were crying cheap in the wake of a possible dynastic-like run.

durant jackson

In reality, the trade turned into a win-win situation for both parties involved. The Thunder front office and scouting team puts a premium on player development. It helps that they have drafted extremely well in the last 5 seasons. For every dud that’s ever gotten drafted by the Thunder, there are two studs in their place. For every Cole Aldrich the team drafts, there’s a Serge Ibaka or a Reggie Jackson. For every Byron Mullens, a Russell Westbrook or James Harden. The team not only looks at skill, but also character. They don’t just want players with specific skill sets; they want players that want to use those skill sets to reach their maximum potential, and then want get better from there. That’s what we’ve seen from the Thunder players when adversity hits. Many people wondered where the scoring would come from when the Thunder traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins in February 2010. They were trading two double figure scoring starters for a center that struggled to average 8 points a game and was coming off of major knee surgery. After the trade, the Thunder adapted and Kevin Durant and James Harden increased their scoring to offset any loss of scoring on the offensive end. At the same token, with Ibaka getting a lot more minutes, the defense improved. The team ended that season with a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

Many wondered whether that same type of internal improvement could happen after the Harden trade. Seriously, what more could Durant and Westbrook do to improve their games? They were already 2 of the top 10 players in the league. The fact that Durant and Westbrook improved their games this season came as no surprise. They knew that they would not only have to replace the scoring of Harden, but also the playmaking. While the superstar duo’s scoring remained consistent from the previous season, it’s their assist numbers that made the team better. Durant averaged a career high 4.6 assists (up from 3.5 the previous season), while Westbrook upped his assist mark by nearly 2 assists per game. Not only did the assist go up, but the turnovers between the two went down (even if slightly). In addition, the duo became very efficient with their scoring. Durant became the newest member of the 180 shooting club (50% FG, 40% 3pt FG, and 90% FT), and Westbrook chose his spots a bit more technically this season.

But what of the other Thunder players? Incremental improvements from Durant and Westbrook alone wouldn’t be enough to replace Harden’s production. Enter Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. Ibaka’s scoring average jumped up over 4 points, but it’s in the matter in which he scored that assisted the team the most. Ibaka became one of the best mid-range shooting big men in the league. Where that helps the Thunder is in floor spacing for Westbrook and Durant. With opposing big men not being able to cheat off of Ibaka, the lanes opened up for the scoring duo. In addition to Ibaka, Sefolosha became a consistent 3-point threat and increased his scoring by nearly 3 points a game. For a team that performs optimally when the floor is spaced, the improvement of these two players has lessened the departure of Harden.

kmart

In addition, the Thunder got a comparable player in Kevin Martin. While the season has, at times, been a bit rough for Martin and his transition as a 6th man, he has filled the role seamlessly enough to lessen the blow of the trade. The bench role transition was made more difficult by the fact that the Thunder not only traded Harden, but also 3 other members of the Thunder’s bench. The Thunder were, in essence, bringing in an entirely new bench unit. On a team that finds comfort in continuity, this was a shock to the system. It took about 65 games, but the coaching staff finally found a rotation off the bench that works for the team. What once seemed like a weakness after the trade, has, once again, turned into a strength for the team.

As mentioned above, the trade was a win-win for both organizations. The Rockets finally got the superstar player that they had been trying to acquire for the past few seasons. In an attempt to acquire a superstar player, that Rockets had been loading up on assets and freeing up cap space. When they failed to acquire Dwight Howard in the offseason, the team shifted its sights onto Harden, who was in a contract squabble with the Thunder. With their combination of Martin (expiring contract/comparable player), Jeremy Lamb (lottery talent), and draft picks, the Rockets finally acquired what they hope is the first piece of their successful puzzle. Not only do the Rockets now have a good young core in Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, and Thomas Robinson, but they also have the cap space to go after another premium free agent this offseason.

rockets

And what about our old friend, James Harden? I’ve always thought that sometimes, in life, you have to get pushed out of your comfort zone to achieve your utmost potential. The reality is that Harden was too talented to be a third option on any team, regardless of who the first two options were. He was a highly efficient scorer that got to the line in droves and was a top notch playmaker, to boot. He had shown that he could perform in high pressure situations and was beginning to be one of the most noticeable faces in the NBA (and its most noticeable beard). He was ready to be a superstar, and was ready to get paid like a superstar. The Thunder offered what they thought was a respectable offer, but also knew that Harden (and his agent) may be looking for something more. The market dictates what a player is worth. If a player begins to hear that he is worth the max, he’ll be looking for that type of money. The Thunder knew this and made a decision: either Harden sacrifices by taking a lesser than market value offer to stay on the team or the Thunder had to pounce on the best deal available. The rest is history. Harden was traded, got a super max extension, and became a superstar. End of story, right?

Ibaka-Harden_original

Wrong. Much like the Thunder versus the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 playoffs, the Rockets are now the hungry, young upstarts trying to take the crown from the defending Western Conference champion Thunder. In a way, the CBA’s concept of player-sharing actually worked out this time. The reality is that when you draft enough talent, you’ll eventually run out of money to pay them all. It’s not a bad dilemma to deal with if you have the right brain trust guiding the team. In the end, after coming full circle, one team got better in this trade and the other team improved. I’ll let you decide which is which.

Kevin Martin’s Future with the Thunder

martin_thunder

One of the biggest decisions facing the Oklahoma City Thunder this offseason is whether or not to keep Kevin Martin past this season. Martin was the other big name in the blockbuster deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets a couple days before the 2012-13 season began. Martin was brought in to maintain the scoring provided by Harden off the bench and has nearly matched Harden’s bench output from last season when Harden was the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year. Though he has struggled at times this season in his new role, especially in home/road splits, Martin has performed well enough to be an integral part of the Thunder, who are once again, championship contenders.

People tend to think of contract negotiations, exclusively, as an offseason event. But the chess pieces that are the “Kevin Martin negotiations” have been shuffling around the chess board all season long. There are always two sides to any negotiation, but there are so many variables that influence the final decision. Those variables are the chess pieces the Thunder and Martin have been playing around with for the entire season. In this article, I’ll look at some of those variables and see how they will influence the upcoming negotiations between these two parties.

Kevin Martin’s chess pieces

Background – Martin comes from Zanesville, OH, which has a population of about 25,000 people. He has maintained very close ties to that community and is constantly involved in community events (basketball camps, 3-on-3 tournaments, etc.) during the offseason. With that said, it doesn’t seem that big city lights have the same effect on Martin as it does with many other players in the NBA. He started his career in one of the smaller markets in the NBA (Sacramento), and then played in one of the bigger markets in Houston. A community like Oklahoma City probably reminds Martin a lot more of Zanesville than a city like Houston would.

zaneville

Personality – If Russell Westbrook’s personality can be described as hyperactive and intense, then Martin’s can be described as cool, calm, and collective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player who touches the ball so much, have so little emotion. It’s not hard to imagine Martin committing a turnover and reacting by saying, “Darn,” in little more than a whisper while jogging to the other end of the floor. And I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing either. On a team full of emotionally charged players (Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka), it’s good to have players on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to balance things out.

Also, Martin’s personality traits are more conducive to accepting a bench role, instead of wanting to be the man. Martin tried that for 9 seasons in Sacramento and Houston with mixed results. He had good stats (21.5 ppg from 2006-2012), but his teams were never good enough to make the playoffs. In an interview with Hoopsworld in late December, Martin stated, “…I’m so happy right now and being with these guys has given me an extra pep in my step. It’s just fun being here. It’s a great organization and great guys. I’m happy right now.” The burden of carrying a team can be pretty daunting, and statements like this lends to me think that Martin is happier being a contributing player on a successful team, than being the man on a mediocre team.

Community-oriented – Martin is known as one of the most affable and approachable players in the league. He is heavily involved in the community in his hometown and even won the 2008 Oscar Robertson Triple Double Award, which is a community involvement award given out annually by the Sacramento Kings. If there’s one thing the Thunder organization places utmost importance on, it’s community involvement. Most players do community activities because the League relegates that they have to. But, Martin is one of those players that truly enjoys being involved in the community.

martin community

On record – When Oklahoma City first got a team, one of the things that detractors hung their hats on was that players weren’t going to want to play or stay in OKC. That the players would skip town at the first opportunity, or never even consider OKC in free agency. In an interview with Marc Stein of Yahoo! Sports in late January, Martin put it on record, saying, “This summer, hopefully everything works out here. I haven’t said that too often. But I will put it out there; hopefully I have found a home in the NBA. I love playing with this group of guys. The organization is great to me. The community has been great to me. It’s the happiest I have been during my NBA career.” While many Thunder fans may take that statement with a grain of salt, after James Harden basically said the same thing in the offseason, there’s an air of wisdom and experience in Martin’s statement that makes it sound more believable.

Production – The trade in late October sent one of the best bench units in the league into complete disarray. Gone from the team were Harden, who was the reigning 6th Man of the Year, Cole Aldrich, who was thought to be the team’s back-up center, and Daequan Cook, who was their situational 3-point shooter/floor spacer. In addition to that, the back-up point guard position was shaky at best, with Eric Maynor coming off of an ACL injury and Reggie Jackson still learning how to play point guard in the NBA. In essence, the Thunder got rid of 4 bench players for one bench player (Martin) and one project player (Jeremy Lamb).

kevin-martin-thunder

It’s taken a little bit more than half of the season, but the bench seems to have solidified itself into a stable outfit. Martin is one of the league leaders in bench scoring, averaging 14.5 points per game. He’s assumed the role of 3-point specialist (43%) and floor spacer when he’s on the floor with Durant and Westbrook, especially late in games. And he’s begun to develop a chemistry with Nick Collison that is akin to the chemistry Collison and Harden had together.

Thunder’s chess pieces

Leverage – The player Martin was shipped with to Oklahoma City in the James Harden deal may ultimately be the reason Martin becomes expendable. Since the moment he donned a Tulsa 66ers jersey, rookie Jeremy Lamb has been lighting up the D-League to the tune of 21.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.1 steals per game in 16 games. While success in the D-League doesn’t always equate to success in the NBA, Lamb has flashed the tools to be a consistent scorer/shooter at the NBA level.

Jeremy Lamb, DeSagana Diop

Comparable players – These are four players (and their salaries) that are comparable to the role that Martin plays on the Thunder.

  • Jamal Crawford – Los Angeles Clippers (4 years / $21.35 miillion)
  • JJ Redick – Milwaukee Bucks (1 year / $6 million)
  • Jason Terry – Boston Celtics (3 years / $15.675 million)
  • Ray Allen – Miami Heat (2 years / $6.32 million)

All of these players are perimeter oriented bench scorers who are average to below average defenders playing for playoff teams.

Home vs. road splits – It’s no secret that players usually play better at home than on the road. There’s the familiarity factor of the arena, the fact that you get to sleep in your own bed, and the boost from the home crowd. As a bench player, Martin is needed to supplement the offense when the starters (namely, Durant and Westbrook) are out of the game. This is very important on the road, especially in the playoffs. Here’s a look at Martin’s home/road splits through the first 61 games of the season:

  • Home – 16.1 ppg on 47.9% FG, 50% 3ptFG, and 92.2% FT
  • Road – 12.7 ppg on 41.3% FG, 35.6% 3ptFG, and 86.7%FT

That’s a 21% drop off in scoring (and noticeable drops in every shooting percentage) outside of the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena. This may become a factor in the playoffs as the Thunder move forward.

CBA and luxury tax – This may be the biggest hindrance in keeping the Thunder from resigning Martin. Starting next season, the Thunder will have $54.19 million allocated to 4 players (Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins). That leaves about $16 million in pre-luxury tax cap space for 11 roster spots. While the Thunder may have to eventually get into the luxury tax to stay competitive, they will try to stave it off for as long as possible.

Prediction

A lot still remains to be seen concerning Martin and the Thunder. While Martin has performed well in the regular season for his career, he’s never been overtly tested in the playoffs. The last time Martin was on a team that made the playoffs, his teammates included Ron Artest, Bonzi Wells, Shareef Abdul Rahim, Mike Bibby, and Corliss Williamson. While he performed well in that one playoff series, it still remains to be seen how Martin will perform as the team advances in the playoffs.

artest martin

Martin seems to be getting more acclimated with his role off the bench. He’s developed a 2-man game with Nick Collison that defenses have to respect. And his ability to space the floor has opened up driving lanes for back-up pg Reggie Jackson. Martin also seems to be getting more used to his role as a shooter/floor spacer late in games with Durant and Westbrook on the floor.

When the Thunder acquired Martin before the season, I think they had every intention on keeping him and seeing how things played out throughout the season. Even though his $12.5 million expiring contract may have been a valuable commodity at the trading deadline, Martin’s name was never mentioned in any trade rumors leading up to the deadline. One of the reasons why the transition from Harden to Martin has been mostly seamless is because Martin provides a lot of the same production that Harden did. He’s an efficient shooter and a good scorer, who’s always looking to attack the defense. That’s a rare commodity to have when a team can rest its starters and still keep the defense on their heels with its second unit. While the trade brought big changes to the roster, the Thunder never had to change any of their game planning because of the similarities in the styles of play of Harden and Martin.

team

Martin, for his part, seems to be genuinely happy in Oklahoma City. I think there are several reasons for his happiness that may work in the Thunder’s favor in resigning Martin. First off, the pressure of being “the man” on the team is no longer on Martin. While Martin is a good scorer, I don’t think he ever embraced being the No.1 guy on a team. Some players are meant to be alpha males, while others are meant to be great role players. Martin seems to fall in the second category. Secondly, he’s playing on a championship contending team. I don’t know how Martin feels about his legacy, but playing for championships tends to enhance your legacy as a player. Thirdly, Martin may actually increase his longevity in the role that he is currently playing. Martin has always been known to be injury prone, playing in over 60 games only 5 times in his 10 year career (to include this season). Coming off the bench on a championship contender, Martin is playing the least amount of minutes since his 2nd season. And he’s going to the FT line a lot less, meaning that he is not driving or putting his body in harm’s way.

The most important factor in all of this is money. How much is Martin willing to sacrifice, and how much are the Thunder willing to offer? Every championship team has an elite bench scorer or a combination of capable bench scorers. I’m sure that even Martin knows he’s not worth the $12.5 million he’s currently getting paid. If the Thunder offer Martin anything comparable to what Jamal Crawford or Jason Terry are making, will he take that offer? Or will he jump at an offer from another team desperate for a shooting guard (Utah, Minnesota, Dallas) that will likely be substantially more than what the Thunder can offer? Another option for the Thunder is Jeremy Lamb. Is Oklahoma City willing to go into next season with Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson as the main components of their bench unit?

fingerroll martin

I think the Thunder see Martin as their firepower off the bench for the next few seasons. If they were willing to go into the luxury tax for Harden, you can be sure that they’ll keep Martin at a much lower price. My prediction is that Martin will sign a contract comparable to what Jason Terry got (possibly 3 years/ $16.5 million) in the offseason. Martin seems like a mature person that realistically knows his strengths and his weaknesses. He knows that this as a great opportunity to play on a team, and in situations, that matter. In the end, I think he’ll choose legacy and longevity over money.

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 More They Remain The Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Harden’s Opus

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

Wow #Harden

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

Here are the details from the trade:

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

The Ugly

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

WWJD – What would James do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trade and the Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

 In Memoriam

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