Tag Archives: Darko Milicic

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.

Seize The Day

During Sam Presti’s “opening of training camp” press conference last week, he mentioned that starting center Kendrick Perkins would be out for the entire preseason, recovering from the 2 offseason surgeries he had on his groin and wrist. Being that Perkins is a 10 year veteran and a consummate professional, I am not at all worried about his conditioning, or whether he’ll be ready to play once the season starts. As an aside, can you believe that Perkins has already been in the league a full decade? But, in a way, I’m ecstatic that our younger centers now have a chance to prove themselves in some real game action before the season begins.

Oklahoma City’s trainer Joe Sharp and his medical staff have done a great job of keeping the Thunder players healthy, for the most part. And to their credit, the players’ quick healing and sheer stubbornness have also played a part in them hardly missing any games. With that said, I’ve always wondered how Eric Maynor would fare as the starting point guard for the Thunder in a couple games. We all know how he performed in the 4th quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in the 2011 playoffs. Was that an aberration or was it really how Maynor would perform with top notch talent consistently around him?  Not that I necessarily want to see Maynor as a starter for an extended period of time, but if Russell Westbrook were to sit out a game or two in the preseason, I wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, I would welcome it.

The biggest detriment to a young player’s development is lack of playing time. Would Darko Milicic be a better player today had he played for a lottery bound team that immediately needed him to develop, instead of being the human victory cigar for the Eastern Conference runners-up Detroit Pistons? We will never know that answer, but it serves as a cautionary tale in how teams handle their young players’ minutes. In the case of the Pistons, there just wasn’t enough room on the team for Milicic to develop on the floor. With Mehmet Okur, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess manning the front line for Detroit at different times during a 5 year championship window, there simply wasn’t enough minutes in a game to help develop a young center while still contending.

Which brings us to the three young centers on the Thunder’s preseason roster. Cole Aldrich, Hasheem Thabeet, and Daniel Orton are all trying to find their spots in the NBA. Three different stories that lead to the same two things: playing time and development. Aldrich would seem to hold the upper hand amongst the 3 centers, as he has been with the organization the longest. The 11th overall selection in the 2010 NBA draft, Aldrich has been entrenched as the team’s 3rd center behind Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. He’s shown enough in D-League stints and garbage time to keep the team intrigued with his defensive potential. With Mohammed’s departure to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason, the back-up center position is his to lose.

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself that you just have to try out. Sam Presti has always been intrigued by Hasheem Thabeet, going all the way back to the 2009 NBA draft. Thabeet was off the board by the time the Thunder selected James Harden with the 3rd pick, but Presti kept close tabs on him after that. There were always rumors of OKC trying to obtain Thabeet during the trading deadline. After 3 disappointing seasons, in which Thabeet had stints on three NBA teams and two D-League teams, the Portland Trailblazers decided not to pick up his 4th year option, thus allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent going into this offseason. Seeing the potential for a low risk, high reward player, Presti signed him to a 2 year, vet-minimum contract. The center, who is pretty mobile, despite being the tallest player in the league (7’3”), has the potential to be a disruptive force on the defensive end. The question is whether he can put all his physical attributes and talent together to be an effective NBA player.

Sometimes injuries play a part in negating a young player’s time on the court. Daniel Orton was drafted in the same year as Aldrich by the Orlando Magic as a possible back-up to Dwight Howard. After suffering a torn ACL during his senior season in high school, Orton once again suffered a season ending knee injury during his rookie season while in the D-League. After recovering in the 2010-11 season, Orton finally saw some game action in the 2011-12 season. The Magic decided not to pick up his 3rd year option, thus allowing him to enter unrestricted free agency. The Thunder decided to bring Orton in as a training camp invite to see how he fits into their system. He probably has the most untapped potential out of the 3 young centers on the team. Rumor has it that if the Thunder don’t sign Orton to a contract, they may try to keep him in their system through the Tulsa 66ers, their D-League affiliate.

The preseason will be a great opportunity for these three young players to show what they got. It may actually be their last chance to prove they are NBA-caliber players. The NBA is a league of “what have you done for me lately?” If a player hasn’t shown anything in his allotted time in the league, you can bet there is another player somewhere looking to seize the day and take that spot.