Tag Archives: d-league

There are no strings on me: The Thunder and the current normal

ultron

I have a confession: I’m completely geeked out for this new Avengers movie after watching the leaked (and then official) trailer. I’ve never been a big comic book fan. I always have to ask brother in law (an avid comic book fan) or Wikipedia about the back stories and B-level characters. But as the Marvel universe has progressed and expanded, it has slowly engulfed my interests and now I’m hooked.

So, about that trailer. In it, the Avengers reassemble against a new foe, Ultron. Apparently, Ultron is a robotic creation of Tony Starks’ that either develops its own free will or is “infused” with its own free will. Anyways, like many other movies of the “robotic element with artificial intelligence” genre, Ultron decides that humans are inferior and must be eliminated. His opening soliloquy, voiced dead on by an eerie James Spader, ultimately locks into Ultron’s theme in the movie: “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want to change it. You’re all puppets, tangled in strings.” His closing line, cloaked behind an haunting rendition of Pinocchio’s “I’ve got no strings” song, tells the story of Ultron’s existence: “I’m free. I have no strings on me”.

In a lot of ways, the young players on the Thunder have been held back by the strings of the current system they have in place. A system that caters mainly to the skill sets of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (and to a lesser extent Reggie Jackson). The system is in place for good reason, though: notably that Durant and Westbrook, regardless of what ESPN’s NBARank thinks, are 2 of the top 5 players in the league. Players like Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones, and Steven Adams all have specific roles to fill in the system. Any deviation from their role can threaten, not only the system, but also the player’s inclusion into the system (a.k.a playing time).

Young players drafted onto championship contenders have the ominous distinction of not only having to develop, but having to develop specifically to a role. If young players are drafted onto bad teams, they are basically given free reign to develop into what they may ultimately become. It’s the tabula rasa concept of letting a blank slate paint itself. Carmelo Anthony’s career would probably be a lot different if he was drafted by the championship contending Detroit Pistons in 2003. In Denver, he was allowed to assume the leadership role of the team early on and develop on his own. In Detroit, he would’ve been stashed behind Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace for at least one season, if not longer. The young players on the Thunder have had to sacrifice their development for the greater good of the team. While they do get to develop in a winning environment, they unfortunately cannot get those 1-3 years of “tabula rasa” development back. The D-League helps, but the competition pales in comparison to the NBA.

perry jones thunder

This season, from the outset, has been one of those “worst possible scenarios” type seasons. A lot of times when NBA writers are typing up their league preview columns, they sometimes give the Best Outcome/Worst Outcome for each team. Well, the beginning of this season has definitely been the “worst outcome” incarnate. It started with rookie Mitch McGary breaking his foot after the first preseason game. Then Durant was found to also have a broken foot that required surgery two days later. All the while, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison were out with various ailments. Then, a week before the season starts, Anthony Morrow goes down with a sprained MCL in pratice. Then two days before the start of the regular season, both Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) get injured in practice and have to sit out the first two games of the season. And finally, Westbrook breaks his hand in the 2nd game of the season. It’s been a curse-like run of bad luck from the get-go this season.

With struggle, comes change. Coach Scott Brooks, long criticized for his inability to adapt on the fly to in-game situations, has had to almost free-style rap a system that is more suited to the likes of Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Sebastian Telfair, and Serge Ibaka. Gone is the system that was catered to two superstars. Now, the the strings of that system have been cut, and players like Jones and Roberson are able to explore and see what they can do in this league without any restraints. The Thunder have gone from championship contender to blank slate developers in the span of a month. With Jones’ career high 32 point explosion on Friday night, it proved , under the guise of necessity and when given a chance, these young players can achieve great things in this league. At least for the next month, the young players on the Thunder will be a lot like Ultron: free and without any strings.

There will be frustrating moments during these next 4-6 weeks. It will be like watching one’s own kids going through their awkward teenage phase. But there will also be moments where the growth of these players will be on full display. And that can be nothing but beneficial for the Thunder. Remember, the silver lining in all of this is that all the significant injuries are only of the 4-6 week variety. If the team can win a couple games they are supposed to and steal a couple games they aren’t, they may be in position to make a big push as the calendar year turns. By January, everybody should be back healthy and ready to make their playoff push. The experience gained by the young players from now to then will be a valuable tool as the team heads towards the playoffs. And in case any one was wondering, they will make the playoffs. Mark it down.

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Early Training Camp Stories

durant media day thunder

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

1. Reggie Jackson

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

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

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

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

2. Starting Shooting Guard

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

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

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

lamb jones thunder

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

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

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

3. Starting Center

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

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

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

4. 15th Spot

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

5. The Semaj Christon Situation

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

semaj christon thunder blue

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

6. Hot seat for Scott Brooks?

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

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

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

8. Steven Adams’ mustache

The Lord giveth…..

adams thunder 2

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

 adams practice

#SadFace

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

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

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

10. Was this the longest offseason in Thunder history?

Yes!

Summertime Blues: What’s Left To Do?

sam presti

This is always the most boring part of the year for me. Summer league is over with, most of the free agents have signed, the FIBA World Cup is still a month away, and football training camps just started. I like baseball, but not enough to pay attention to it day in and day out. In addition, the stability of the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise makes time seem to drag even more. Don’t get me wrong, though. I enjoy the stability of the team. Our superstars and role players are all signed and the roster, for the most part, is already set.

But the work of an NBA GM is never done. It is during these quiet times that GM’s get most of their leg work done for future moves. Thunder GM Sam Presti has done a great job of creating a stable environment, but there is still work to be done before the season starts. Here are 3 issues the team still wants to take of before the season starts.

1. What to do with Semaj Christon?

Much like Grant Jerrett from last season, the Thunder see a lot of potential in their 2nd round pick-up from this draft. Christon is the prototypical Thunder point guard: long, athletic, and able to get into the lane. What he lacks is consistent perimeter shooting and experience as a floor general. The Thunder saw a little of what Christon is able to produce during Summer League. He averaged 11.3 points, 2.3 rebouds, and 2.8 assists on 48.5% shooting from the field. He played in 4 games and averaged 26.3 minutes per game. He showed a penchant for being a good on the ball defender and averaged 1.3 steals per game. This is a prime example of what the Thunder look for in a point guard.

semaj christon thunder summer league

With Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, and Sebastian Telfair already on the roster, the point guard quota for the Thunder is filled for this season. The question is how do the Thunder hold on to Christon without having a roster spot to offer him? Barring a late offseason trade, the Thunder already have the 15 players they will be going into the season with.

Will they maneuver another Jerrett-like move to hold onto Christon’s draft rights through their D-League affiliate? One thing that may be in the Thunder’s favor is the loyalty they showed to Jerrett last season. Jerrett went along with the move the Thunder made to rescind his rights before training camp, but draft him in the D-League draft. At the end of the D-League season, the Thunder brought Jerrett in for the last week of the season and for the remainder of the playoffs. Christon may see this and give the Thunder a chance to develop him in the D-League with the thought that he might be brought in at the end of this season or next season. The Thunder have been including Christon in a lot of their community related activities this offseason, so it’s obvious they see him as a part of their future.

2. The Hasheem Thabeet / Tibor Pleiss Conundrum

Since 2010, one of the questions asked every offseason for the Thunder is whether Tibor Pleiss would finally come over. The Thunder drafted the German big man with the 31st pick in the 2010 NBA draft and expected him to stay in Europe for a couple seasons to further his development. But with Pleiss turning 25 this year, it’s getting to the point where the Thunder either bring him over and see what type of player they have, or they move on and Pleiss becomes one of those names that gets included in a trade as filler. With the calendar nearing August, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Pleiss would stay in Europe this season.

tibor pleiss

The Thunder, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily in need of a big man. They already have Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams in tow, and have a team option for Hasheem Thabeet. Next offseason is a different story. Perkins will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, as will Thabeet if the Thunder pick up his option. The Thunder have until September 1st to make a decision on Thabeet. If they don’t waive him before that date, his salary becomes fully guaranteed.

Everything was expected to go as planned. The Thunder would head into this season with their three centers, and Pleiss would stay in Europe for at least one more year of seasoning. Then, on July 27th, international sports website Sportando quoted German national coach Emir Mutapcic as saying, “His agent told us that Pleiss is close to signing in the NBA.” It seems like every offseason there are conflicting reports whether Pleiss would come over or not, but this one felt different. Maybe it’s the fact that Pleiss hasn’t officially signed with a Euroleague team or the fact that no one in the Thunder organization has flat out said, “No, Pleiss is not coming over this season.”

It would make sense for the Thunder to bring Pleiss over this season in order to get him acclimated to playing in the NBA. If he’s going to be the primary back-up next season, he’ll need the experience. Plus, the Thunder have to see what they actually have in Pleiss. The only drawback will be the departure of Thabeet, whom the team loves as a locker room/chemistry guy. From a basketball perspective, though, it would be the best move to bring Pleiss over.

Reggie Jackson’s extension

Other than signing a 3-point shooter, no other move would complete this offseason like signing Reggie Jackson to an extension. Jackson just completed his third season in the league, which makes him eligible for an extension with his current team. If the Thunder fail to sign Jackson to an extension this offseason, then they risk him going into restricted free agency next offseason. This is a scary thought because if a team with cap space offers Jackson a lucrative contract, then the Thunder may have to turn it down and allow Jackson to walk away with nothing to show for it.

The question becomes, “What is Jackson worth?” He’s a 6th Man of the Year candidate with the skills (and chops) to be a starter in the league. In the past year, Jackson has filled in admirably in Westbrook’s absence due to injury, and has been part of the Thunder’s finishing line-up when Westbrook has been healthy. The Thunder, and Jackson, for that matter, are probably paying close attention to what happens in the Eric Bledsoe/Phoenix Suns contract negotiations. Jackson’s situation is very similar to Bledsoe’s, who was a 6th Man of the Year candidate for the Los Angeles Clippers, playing behind Chris Paul, before getting traded to the Suns where he became a full time starter. The Suns recently offered Bledsoe a 4 year/$48 million dollar contract, which Bledsoe rejected.

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three

To the Thunder, Jackson is not worth $12 million a year. With max level contracts for Durant and Westbrook already in the books, and Ibaka receiving $12.3 million per season, the Thunder can’t really give out another max or near-max level contract. With Perkins and his $9.4 million dollar contract coming off the books after this season, the Thunder could hypothetically offer Jackson a 4 year, $30 million dollar contract. Anything more than that, and the Thunder are compromising their ability to sign Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka to future extensions.

Besides the money, another sticking point may be Jackson’s desire to be a full-time starter in the league. In his exit interview, Jackson made that desire known to the public. The Thunder like to start a traditionally sized, defensive minded shooting guard in the Thabo Sefolosha mold and probably would not commit to starting a duel combo guard starting line-up. In Jackson’s mind, if he’s able to get the money and the starting job, he may be willing to wait out this year and go to restricted free agency next season. If that’s the case, the Thunder may just have themselves another James Harden situation.

Josh Huestis: The Intern

huestis summer league thunder

On July 19th, Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman wrote a story suggesting the Oklahoma City Thunder were thinking about making rookie Josh Huestis to first domestic draft and stash player. Basically, Huestis would delay signing his guaranteed contract for one season while he plays in the D-League with the Oklahoma City (formerly Tulsa) 66ers. He would receive a D-League salary (currently about $25,000), and would train exclusively with the 66ers for the 2014-15 season.

Overseas draft and stash players are common practice in the NBA. Teams draft foreign players and allow them to continue to develop overseas. The player, while attached to their overseas team, does not count towards his NBA team’s salary cap or roster spot allotment. It’s a win/win for both sides involved with little to no risk. The player develops overseas on the foreign team’s dime at no cost to the NBA team, while also being a tradeable asset. Then, when the player is ready to come over, he informs the NBA team, and if he was picked in the first round, his salary scale starts from where he was drafted. Business as usual.

For some reason, though, the news of a domestic draft and stash caused a bit of an uproar around NBA media circles. The uproar was caused by not knowing whether the deal was predetermined or whether they negotiated this deal with Huestis after he was drafted. Kind of like, “Hey, we (the Thunder) did you a huge favor by drafting you in the first round, so this is what we need you to do for us.” That last statement almost sounds like the textbook definition of quid pro quo that is used in workplace sexual harassment videos. People in the national media were throwing around words like slimy and unethical, without even knowing what the parameters of the agreement between the Thunder and Huestis were.

Josh Huestis, Carrick Felix

In reality, the Thunder, Huestis, and Huestis’ agent Mitchell Butler, all agreed to this before draft night. What irks me the most is the media painting Huestis as this star-struck neophyte who was ripe for the picking by the big, bad Thunder organization. In fact, it was the complete opposite. This was a power move by an extremely intelligent young man. He turned what was going to be an unpredictable voyage as a 2nd rounder or undrafted free agent into a predictable journey to the NBA with guaranteed money waiting for him. In essence, he chose to be an intern with the organization that promised to pay him later, than to Frank Sinatra his way into the unknown (overseas, D-League, rejected training camp invite) by doing it his way.

If anything, Huestis should be applauded for his pragmatism. The stories are too numerous of players who give up their college eligibility based on pre-draft hype, which ends with them dropping into the 2nd round or worse. But this young man knew the reality of his situation, and snatched up a grand opportunity when it presented itself. Huestis was also pragmatic enough to understand that an extra year of tutelage may not be a bad thing for his NBA future. Huestis already has an NBA body and an NBA skill (defense). But complete players have lasting power in the NBA. So if Huestis is able to build his game in the D-League and, hopefully, become a future contributor on a championship contending team, then his stock rises that much more.

Huestis has taken a career that was destined for stops in Fort Wayne and the Philippines, and transformed it into one where he actually sees the NBA light at the end of the tunnel. He’s upped his earning potential immensely and now sits on the precipice of setting himself up for life. Huestis graduated from Stanford this May, and did what some of his fellow graduates did…got an internship. The difference is that his internship ends with him guaranteed to garner between $1.5 and $5 million dollars in the next 3-5 years. That, my friends, is a hell of a 5 year plan.

Thunder sign Grant Jerrett for rest of the season

adams roberson jerrett thunder

Rewind back to last June when the Thunder had 3 of the first 32 picks of the 2013 NBA Draft. I thought there was no way that the Thunder would draft 3 players that would suit up for the Thunder this season. And I was right. Of the three players picked, only Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are on the Thunder roster. Alex Abrines, selected with the 2nd pick in the 2nd round, was kept in Europe for more development. But, apparently, I was also wrong. The Thunder, in addition to the 3 players mentioned above, also bought the rights to the No. 40 pick from the Portland Trailblazers. That pick turned out to be a stretch 4 from Arizona named Grant Jerrett. Jerrett’s game has been compared to Channing Frye’s of the Phoenix Suns.

Jerrett played on the Thunder’s summer league, and showed his potential. He scored in a variety of ways and was one of the Thunder’s top players on the team. But, he also showed that he had a lot of work to do in terms of defense and consistency. With a loaded roster, the Thunder pulled off a shrewd move and allowed Jerrett’s rights to expire when they didn’t sign him to a training camp roster. Instead of letting him go for nothing, the team worked out a deal where their minor league affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, would obtain the 1st pick in the D-League draft and would choose Jerrett. That way, Jerrett’s right would stay within the Thunder organization as long as they didn’t sign him to a contract during the D-League regular season.

grant jerrett thunder 66ers

With the 66ers season done, the Thunder signed Grant Jerrett for the rest of the season and into the playoffs. It took nearly the entire season, but the Thunder somehow ended up with three rookies on their roster. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed and it is unknown if the deal holds any future contractual obligations.

The Thunder and the Trading Deadline (2014 Edition)

thabo sefolosha thunder

Heading into the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in the unfamiliar position of being a title contender, while also having a war chest worth of assets that would make any team in rebuild mode jealous. Most championship contending teams have an experienced core that was obtained by trading away assets. But the James Harden trade from the beginning of last season gave the Thunder some cap flexibility and assets to play with heading into this season. They have a veteran on an extremely cap friendly expiring contract (Thabo Sefolosha), young players with potential on rookie scale contracts (Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Perry Jones), an extra draft pick (Dallas’ protected 1st rounder), and two sizable Traded Player Exceptions.

They have everything necessary to make a monster trade. But two important questions come to mind when a team nears the trade deadline. The first question is “What does the team need?”. Every team has weaknesses that can be addressed via a trade. The important thing when it comes to addressing weaknesses is what does the team have to offer and what is the team willing to give up. Those two things may seem to be the same, but are entirely different. For example, the Heat can address any of their weaknesses by trading Chris Bosh. But in reality, the Heat will, instead, choose to make a smaller deal or stand pat.  Which leads to the second question, “Does the team need to make a trade?”.

When a team has the best record heading into the All Star break, while also missing their 2nd best player for much of the first half of the season, the above question becomes a valid one. Much of the Thunder’s success can be attributed to the chemistry the team has cultivated over the years. Making a trade now, especially one where a rotational player is traded, could have it’s consequences.

Two things have to be weighed when contemplating a trade: how the trade affects you currently and how the trade can affect you in the future. The reality with the Thunder is that they will be toeing the tax line for the foreseeable future. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka on max (or near max) deals, finding bargains will be the rule of the land. Anything that includes extra salary and extra years will probably be nixed.

durant ibaka westbrook thunder

Another thing to factor is the fact that the Thunder have assets that are not currently on the roster, but could come into play as early as next season. Tibor Pleiss, the Thunder’s 2nd round Eurostash from 2010, could possibly join the team next season. Another possible roster spot could go to Grant Jerrett next season. The stretch 4 out of Arizona was acquired by the Thunder in the 2nd round of last year’s draft. His rights are still owned by the Thunder as he develops in Tulsa under the guise of the Thunder D-League team.

Also, the team will have to decide if obtaining a player will have any impact on future roster moves, such as extending Jackson and/or Sefolosha. Only the front office knows what they plan to do with those two players, but their futures will probably have a bearing on what the Thunder do this season at the trade deadline.

In the end, the first question asked comes into play. What, exactly, do the Thunder need? They head into the All-Star break with the best record in the league. They are top 5 in offense (ppg), offensive rating, defensive rating, and rebounds. They are top 10 in points allowed and 2nd in margin of victory. And they have done this with their All-Star point guard  missing more games than he’s played. So, what exactly, does this team need? It’s like asking the guy who has everything what he wants for Christmas.

jones jackson lamb ibaka durant westbrook thunder

I can only see two areas of need for this team: 3-point shooting and point guard depth. If there is a player that could supply both while not minding being the 11th or 12th man on this team, then I’m all for it. Only problem is there aren’t many players like that. Point guards with the ability to shoot usually find their ways into line-ups.

So where does that leave us? I think the Thunder will stand pat as far as their current roster is concerned. Realistically, their most available assets are two empty roster spots, a $2.3 million trade exception, Hasheem Thabeet ($1.2 million this season), two future 2nd rounders from the Ryan Gomes trade, and possibly their own first rounder for this upcoming draft (slotted to be in the 28-30 range). I think the Thunder will attempt to get a shooter with their trade exception, possibly CJ Miles of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Anthony Morrow of the New Orleans Pelicans. Then I think they’ll sign Royal Ivey for the rest of the season once his season is done in China.

sam presti thunder

The Thunder don’t have to do much tinkering. Their biggest acquisition may be the return of Russell Westbrook from injury. They have enough roster flexibility to adapt to any style thrown at them. And they have enough experience to get through any rough patch. As long as health does not become a factor, they should finish the regular season out in the same fashion they went into the All Star break. But somewhere, deep in the recesses of my mind, I imagine Sam Presti reading this article, letting out a diabolical laugh, and calling up Adam Silver to put his stamp of approval on a 12 team, 38 player trade involving 25 draft picks, 13 Euro-stashes, and $21 million dollars worth of cash considerations right at the trade deadline.

Growing Pains: The Thunder’s young bench

jeremy lamb reggie jackson thunder

Injuries are an inevitability in sports. When you have bodies constantly in motion, there are going to come times when those bodies either collide or move in ways that cause injury. It’s the reason team sports have reserve players. In the wake of injuries, a team should have a healthy balance of veteran players and young, developing players. It’s the line that allows teams to sustain success while also building for the future. Have too much of either on the bench, and a team risks cutting into their current success or into their future success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have always had a decent balance of veterans and young players on the bench. But with the James Harden trade, they decided to rely on youth instead of looking for veteran help in free agency. At the time of that trade, they received rookie SG Jeremy Lamb, a lottery pick from the Toronto Raptors (that eventually turned into Steven Adams), and an early 2nd rounder from the Charlotte Bobcats (that eventually turned into Spanish guard Alex Abrines, a Euro-stash). Along with that, the Thunder already had 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson and rookie Perry Jones III in tow. In essence, the Thunder have been grooming this new bench mob for the past season and a half.

kevin martin hasheem thabeet eric maynor thunder

Another addition to the Harden trade was veteran guard Kevin Martin, who slid into the 6th man role that Harden occupied. Last season’s bench was veteran-laden with Martin, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and Hasheem Thabeet getting the lion’s share of the reserve minutes. About a third into the season, Maynor was replaced by Jackson and Derek Fisher joined the team after the All-Star break. The problem with our veteran bench last season was two-fold: there wasn’t any offensive versatility to it and it was inconsistent defensively. The scoring was either coming from Martin or it wasn’t coming at all. As his efficiency declined in the second half of the season, so did the bench’s offensive effectiveness. It got to the point where either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook had to be on the floor with the bench unit for it to be effective. Defensively, the bench struggled to match the athleticism of other younger benches.

On paper, the bench last season was a good mix of veterans and young players. But most of the young players spent their time in Tulsa and never got to test their mettle against NBA competition. Last season, Lamb spent 801 minutes (regular season and postseason combined) in the D-League and only 147 regular season minutes with the Thunder. Perry Jones spent 588 total minutes in the D-League and only 280 regular season minutes (plus 5 playoff minutes) with the Thunder.

perry jones thunder

 

Now, those two players, along with Jackson and Adams, are being asked to carry the second unit for a title contender. Veterans Derek Fisher and Nick Collison still play a prominent role off the bench, but the team is dependent on the young players to provide the team what the bench couldn’t provide last season, which was offensive versatility and defensive consistency. For the most part, the bench was starting to become one of the top benches in the league, before the Westbrook injury. After, though, it has been more inconsistent. And therein lies the problem with depending on such a young bench.

When the San Antonio Spurs suffer injuries to their starters, they can depend on veterans Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, and Patty Mills to come in and step up until those injured players get back. The same goes for the Miami Heat. When their line-up needs to be shuffled, they know they can fall back on the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Rashard Lewis. Veterans that not only know their roles, but also have championship experience to boot. These players know how to work through slumps and how to affect games in ways other than scoring. These young Thunder players are just now learning how to do these things.

steven adams griffin thunder clippers

There are positive signs though. The last time the Thunder played the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder were down for most of the game and Lamb was having a miserable game, shooting 2-7 FG with 2 turnovers. But he found ways to affect the game via his rebounding and defense, and made the plays necessary in the 4th quarter to help the Thunder win the game. Perry Jones has affected numerous games with his defense and ability to hit 3-point shots. And Jackson is showing signs of being a good combo guard, similar to Eric Bledsoe.

Reggie Jackson got his baptism by fire in the playoffs last season after Westbrook went down with his knee injury. But other than him, and 5 minutes of Perry Jones in Game 1 of the Houston series, none of the young bench players have any playoff experience. Could that come back to bite the Thunder in the rear during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals? It could, but nothing teaches quite like experience. Here’s hoping that the growing pains of the regular season turn into the epiphanies of the post season.

The Thunder and the 66ers: Paying Dividends

lamb tulsa 66ers thunder

Last season I wrote about the Oklahoma City Thunder’s extensive use of their D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers. After the Harden trade, the Thunder found themselves in the peculiar position of being a contending team, while also having a handful of players that they needed to develop. In the Harden trade, they received a good stopgap in Kevin Martin and an apt apprentice in Jeremy Lamb. The Thunder used Martin as their 6th man off the bench, and he performed serviceably for them, notching averages of 14.0 ppg and 2.3 rpg on 43% 3pt shooting. The wild card in the trade was Lamb, the rookie out of Connecticut who was the 12th pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

Lamb was used in spot duty throughout the season, but spent most of his time in Tulsa where he averaged 21 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.2 steals per game in 21 games. There is no doubt that that experience helped Lamb in his transition to be a major cog off the bench for the Thunder this season.

Reggie Jackson spent only 3 games in the D-League last season, but he made his mark known. His per game averages for those 3 games were an astounding 28 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.3 assists on 60% FG shooting and 36% 3-pt FG shooting. After that 3 game stint, Jackson went on to get the majority of the back-up point guard minutes on the team and eventually led to Eric Maynor being traded to the Portland Trailblazers. That move paid dividends when Russell Westbrook went down in the second game of the 2013 NBA playoffs. Jackson performed well in his first foray as an NBA starter. Even though the Thunder lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs, Jackson provided enough of a steady hand that the Thunder knew, regardless of how the Kevin Martin negotiations went in the offseason, that they had a true 6th man already under contract.

jackson rose bulls thunder

While Jeremy Lamb was an unknown heading into the season, it was known that he would be part of the rotation. What wasn’t known was how Perry Jones III would fit into the equation. Would he be in the rotation? Would he be shuffled back and forth between Tulsa and Oklahoma City? What is known is the Jones was a combination of size, speed, and athleticism that is unparalleled in the league, outside of Kevin Durant and Paul George. A 6’11 hybrid that can possibly play every position not named point guard.

The key to Jones’ success is if he ever learns how to harness all the raw talent and ability into something feasible on the basketball court. Early returns this season have proven inconclusive. He has shown flashes of being a good rotation player, but also gets caught doing a lot of floating on the floor. Also, due to the rotation, he may be the odd man out at the moment. A little bit of extra seasoning in the D-League may be beneficial to Jones. Not necessarily an entire season’s worth, but maybe 10 games in 3-4 game stints would do wonders for this development. Continue reading The Thunder and the 66ers: Paying Dividends

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.

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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.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 82 of 82)

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  • When: Wednesday, 17 April 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The final regular season mission has been completed. While we didn’t obtain home court advantage throughout the playoffs, we did earn home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. This accomplishment has earned us the right to treat the final regular season game like a preseason game. Limited minutes for the regulars and heavy minutes for the young guys at the end of the bench.

Other than a feather in the cap, the Milwaukee Buck have nothing to gain by winning this game, either. I wouldn’t be surprised if their regulars got plenty of rest also. The game may turn into something similar to a D-League All-Star game with all the young guys out there. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Daniel Orton, and DeAndre Liggins may give a glimpse to what the Thunder bench may look like next season. The Thunder won the last meeting against the Bucks using a 19-2 run in the 4th quarter to erase a 5 point deficit.

Kevin Durant, Larry Sanders

Fun note: If Carmelo Anthony sits out the New York Knicks’ final game as expected, Kevin Durant would need to score 70 points to win the scoring title. While this type of selfishness is not indicative of Durant’s character and team first approach, this wouldn’t be the first time that a guy of Durant’s moral ilk goes all Finding Nemo seagulls (Mine!Mine!Mine!) on an opponent to win a scoring title. Hall of Famer David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs scored 71 points on the final day of the 1993-94 season to capture the scoring title from Shaquille O’Neal.

mine

Probable Starting Lineups

Milwaukee Bucks

  • PG – Brandon Jennings
  • SG – Monta Ellis
  • SF – Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
  • PF – Ersan Ilyasova
  • C – John Henson

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Hasheem Thabeet

3 Keys to the Game

1. Come out of the game healthy – Some of the guys on the team are already suffering from, what I like to call, grind of the season injuries. Kendrick Perkins is suffering from a strained hamstring, Kevin Martin is suffering from a sore back, and Derek Fisher is suffering from a sore foot. Whatever the outcome of this game is, I don’t want to add anymore names to that list.

brookies

2. Preview of next season’s bench mob – There should be plenty of time to go around for the Thunder’s D-League All-Stars. Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, DeAndre Liggins, and Daniel Orton should all get substantial minutes in this game. I fully expect a poster dunk from Jones III in this game.

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3. Appreciate this regular season – This has been one of the most trying, but also, one of the most rewarding seasons in the Thunder’s history. To lose one of your main components in a core-shattering trade 4 days before the first game of the season had to weigh heavily on the returning group of players who were itching to get back to the NBA Finals for redemption. But they adapted, learned, and improved to the point where they had their best regular season since they became the Thunder, and got the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, to boot. Thunder Up, indeed!