Tag Archives: Detroit Pistons

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Central Division

Central Divison Preview

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

lebron james varejao cavs

Last season: 33-49 (3rd in the Central Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Brendan Haywood – Obtained in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets
  • LeBron James – Free agent signing
  • James Jones – Free agent signing
  • Kevin Love – Obtained in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Shawn Marion – Free agent signing
  • Mike Miller – Free agent signing
  • John Lucas III – Obtained in a trade with the Utah Jazz

Key Departures:

  • Anthony Bennett – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Andrew Wiggins – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Spencer Hawes – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • C.J. Miles – Signed with the Indiana Pacers
  • Tyler Zeller – Traded to the Boston Celtics
  • Alonzo Gee – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Sergey Karasev – Traded to the Brooklyn Nets
  • Luol Deng – Signed with the Miami Heat

Season Preview – No other team in the league made as big of an offseason improvement as the Cavaliers. The signing of James combined with the acquisition of Love immediately elevated the Cavs from lottery bound team to championship contender. The additions of Miller and Jones will provide the Cavs with the floor spacing they need to maximize the talents of LeBron, Love, and Kyrie Irving, who just finished an MVP campaign with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. The one thing that can derail the Cavs, besides injuries, is the lack of experience from key players. The Cavs will be putting a lot of the responsibility on four players who have never sniffed the playoffs in their careers (Irving, Love, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson).

2014-15 will be successful if: The Cavs make it to the Finals. Winning the Finals would definitely be icing on the cake, but this team is looking to build experience for sustained future success in the next 5 seasons.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 58-24

2. Chicago Bulls

rose noah bulls

Last season: 48-34 (2nd in the Central Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Washington Wizards.

Key Additions:

  • Aaron Brooks – Free agent signing
  • Pau Gasol – Free agent signing
  • Doug McDermott – Draft (No. 11 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Nikola Mirotic – Signed Eurostash

Key Departures:

  • Carlos Boozer – Amnestied; then signed by the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Nazr Mohammed – Currently unsigned
  • D.J. Augustin – Signed with the Detroit Pistons

Season Preview – The success of the Bulls rests on the health of Derrick Rose. After basically missing the last two seasons, Rose showed some of the form that made him a league MVP 3 seasons ago during the FIBA World Cup. If Rose comes anywhere close to being that type of player, the Bulls will once again be listed as a championship contending team. The addition of Gasol and Mirotic bolsters a front line that was already one of the better ones in the league. And adding a shooter like McDermott, to bookend with Dunleavy, will make this team even more formidable if Rose returns to form. This team, with a healthy Rose, has a great balance of defense and offense that will lead them far if everything clicks.

2014-15 will be successful if: Derrick Rose remains healthy and the Bulls make it to the Finals.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 57-25

3. Detroit Pistons

pistons drummond monroe jennings caldwell pope

Last season: 29-53 (4th in the Central Divison, 11th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • D.J. Augustin – Free agent signing
  • Caron Butler – Free agent signing
  • Aaron Gray – Free agent signing
  • Jodie Meeks – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Charlie Villanueva – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Rodney Stuckey – Signed with the Indiana Pacers
  • Chauncey Billups – Retired

Season Preview – Last season, the Pistons were an inefficient bunch that relied too much on perimeter shooting from players who weren’t weren’t great at shooting. This season, new coach (and GM) Stan Van Gundy, decided to bring in some shooters to supply that need. Meeks and Butler will provide the spacing that Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will need to operate inside. In addition, Brandon Jennings will be able to be more of a drive and dish point guard, instead of a “let it fly” point guard.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Pistons make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 38-44

4. Indiana Pacers

paul george injury pacers

Last season: 56-26 (1st in the Central Divison, 1st in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • C.J. Miles – Free agent signing
  • Rodney Stuckey – Free agent signing
  • Damjan Rudez – European free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Evan Turner – Signed with the Boston Celtics
  • Lance Stephenson – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – The story of this upcoming season for the Pacers was written on August 1st, when Paul George broke both bones in his lower right leg in a freak accident during the Blue and White scrimmage for USA Basketball. With that, and the departure of Stephenson, any chance of the Pacers contending in the Eastern Conference went out of the window. Stephenson and George were the only players on the team capable of creating their own shots. This season, the Pacers will have to rely on Roy Hibbert, David West, and CJ Miles to provide any semblance of offense. Hence why I think they’ll struggle this year.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Pacers make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 31-51

5. Milwaukee Bucks

parker bucks

Last season: 15-67 (5th in the Central Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Jabari Parker – Draft (No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jerryd Bayless – Free agent signing
  • Jared Dudley – Obtained in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Damien Inglis – Draft (No. 31 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Kendall Marshall – Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers

Key Departures:

  • Ramon Sessions – Unsigned
  • Ekpe Udoh – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Carlos Delfino – Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Miroslav Raduljica – Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers

Season Preview – Much like the Philadelphia 76ers, this season will be all about development for the young core of the Bucks. The Bucks seem to have their wings of the future in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Parker. This season will be about evaluating the point guard and post positions. The Bucks will win more games this season than last because Parker and Antetokounmpo will make winning plays, but the rest of the team will need to follow their lead.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Bucks’ core shows improvement in their development and they net another Top 5 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 21-61

Advertisements

Detroit Pistons vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 82 of 82)

adams durant westbrook singler thunder pistons

  • When: Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 7:00 PM EST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The Oklahoma City Thunder have no one to blame but themselves for being in this position. The Thunder have had 2 opportunities to not only put the Clippers away in their chase of the No. 2 seed in the West, but also of resting their guys, namely Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Instead, the Thunder will have to play a real game on the last game of the season in order to hang onto the 2nd seed.

This will be the 2nd and final (duh!) meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder won the first meeting 119-110. It was a memorable game because Thunder rookie Steven Adams had 17 points and 10 boards in only his 5th game. That would end up being, statistically, his best game of the season.

The Opponent

drummond smith jennings monroe pistons

The Pistons come into the game with a 29-52 record. It is a season that has been mired in disappointment beginning with the firing of head coach Maurice Cheeks and culminating in the resignation of longtime GM and Pistons great Joe Dumars. The additions of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith were supposed to get this team over the edge, but instead, these two players have been a huge part of the problem. Their lack of efficiency from the perimeter has made life that much harder for burgeoning big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. It’s a team that was not put together very well, and the effects are showing on the court.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Detroit Pistons

  • PG – Brandon Jennings
  • SG – Rodney Stuckey
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Greg Monroe
  • C – Andre Drummond

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

Perimeter Defense – Defensively, this game caters to the Thunder’s strength. Both Monroe and Drummond are post players that rarely venture further than 15 feet out. The Thunder post players (Ibaka, Perkins, Adams, and Collison) will be able to remain in their comfort zone in the paint. Where the Pistons could beat the Thunder is on the perimeter. With the inside contained, the Thunder players should stay with the shooters and defend the 3-point line.

adams jackson lamb jennings thunder pistons

 

Mind Games – The Clippers will be resting some of their players (Blake Griffin and JJ Redick), and claim they aren’t actively chasing the 2 seed. But that sounds like a psychological ploy to me. If the Thunder play lackadaisically and lose this game, you can bet the Clippers will deploy all available resources to win their game against the Blazers. Remember, the Clippers’ game starts as the Thunder game is ending. Also of note: The Blazers have nothing to play for (can’t move up/can’t move down) so they will probably be resting their players also.

3. Stay Healthy – We are playing for the second season, not this season. Stay healthy, gentlemen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Detroit Pistons Preview (Game 5 of 82)

20131108-135821.jpg

  • When – Friday, 08 November 2013 at 6:30 PM CST
  • Where – The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills, MI

The Oklahoma City Thunder embark on their 3rd road game of the season against the much improved Detroit Pistons. The Thunder finally started looking like themselves in their last game against the Dallas Mavericks. They set a season high in points and assists, and showcased the young talent that has been brewing on the bench and in Tulsa for the past year.

The Thunder come into the game with a 3-1 record. They swept the season series against the Pistons last season and have won 8 straight dating back to the Thunder’s inaugural season in 2008-09.

The Opponent

20131108-140645.jpg

The Pistons come into the game with a 2-2 record. After whiffing on free agent signees Ben Gordan and Charlie Villanueva in 2009, Pistons GM Joe Dumars aggressively pursued and signed free agent forward Josh Smith and traded for point guard Brandon Jennings. Those two moves combined with young big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe have a lot of people mentioning the Pistons as a dark horse playoff team. The Pistons have had their issues in trying to work Smith in as a small forward and Jennings has struggled with his 3-pt shot in the early going. Off the bench, the Pistons are led by veterans Charlie Villanueva, Kyle Singler, and Rodney Stuckey. Continue reading Oklahoma City Thunder at Detroit Pistons Preview (Game 5 of 82)

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.

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on the Thunder

kobe durant

There’s something to be said about big brothers. I never had one growing up, and, honestly, most of the people I associated with while growing up were the oldest children in their families. But in the examples that I did see while growing up, big brothers can help shape and mold younger brothers into something better than what they themselves are. As we’ve seen with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, big brothers don’t even have to be related to their younger brethren to have an impact.

Big brothers serve two purposes in life: to frustrate and to motivate. The frustration part comes from the big brother’s ability to dominate over the little brother due to being older, bigger, and wiser. The motivation part comes from the little brother wanting to be better than the big brother. The thing about this big brother/little brother dynamic is that the little brother is able to take notes on how to best his big brother, while the big brother just has to wing being a big brother.

bryant perk

In a lot of ways, with all due respect to Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey, Kevin Ollie, and Desmond Mason, the best example of a big brother to the Oklahoma City Thunder has been Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. With his recent season-ending (and hopefully, not career ending) Achilles tendon tear, I was forced to evaluate Bryant’s legacy when it comes to the Thunder.

If there is one word to describe my feelings towards Bryant’s basketball ability, it’s respect. Off the court, though, Bryant is one of those people that I would try to avoid like the plague. His arrogance and A-type personality, combined with a penchant to place blame on others when things don’t go his way, would be a package that I would completely avoid, if possible, in real life. But on the court, those personality traits, and the fact that he plays for the most polarizing franchise in NBA history, make for must see TV. Bryant is a five tool player that has a lethal 6th tool: the overwhelming need to completely decimate his opponent night in and night out, year after year. Michael Jordan had this 6th tool. Larry Bird had this 6th tool. Bill Russell had this 6th tool. Russell Westbrook HAS this 6th tool.

To view Bryant as an opponent is to respect someone out of fear. Fear for what he could do against your team. Fear that he’ll conjure up some bulletin board material for his mental bulletin board, and go off on your team for no particular reason. Fear that he could miss 10 shots in a row, but the 11th shot, with the game on the line, will go in without hesitation. That’s the kind of respect that Kobe Bryant garners. And yet, it’s a fear that keeps you staring in awe. He’s the type of player that fans say, “I hate what he does to my team, but I love to watch him play.”

kobe-bryant-lakers

Every successful up and coming team has that one hurdle they set their sights on. If you’re a team that is coming out of the dredges of the draft lottery, you mark successes in increments. First step is to be competitive on a nightly basis. Then the next step is to get into the playoffs. Then the next step is to be successful in the playoffs. You keep going until, hopefully, eventually, you win a championship. But along the way, especially in the early stages of the success journey, you always target that one team that’s been there and done that. For the Chicago Bulls in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was the Detroit Pistons. For the Orlando Magic in the mid 90’s, it was the New York Knicks. And for the Thunder, it was the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

kobe_thunder

As fate would have it, that 2010 playoff series that pitted the No. 1 seeded Lakers vs. the No. 8 seeded Thunder was probably the best thing for the development of the Thunder. The fact that they were able to give the eventual champion Lakers a fight in the first round did wonders for the confidence of the young Thunder. But if you broke it down to its simplest form, the Thunder didn’t give the Lakers a test. They gave Kobe a test. They planted the seed in Kobe’s head that we would be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. When the crowd would chant, “Beat LA”, they were actually chanting “Beat Kobe”. Nobody feared Pau Gasol. Or Andrew Bynum. Or Derek Fisher (hehe!). We knew that Kobe had received the message. And that was both awesome and fearful (respectful) at the same time.

As the Thunder’s two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, progressed in the NBA world, they would eventually come in contact more often with Kobe Bryant. On Western Conference All-Star teams and, most importantly, the Olympics, Thunder fans can only hope that our superstars soaked up any of the psychological warfare that Bryant uses on a daily bases. Those blurbs that you hear from media members about Bryant talking trash to Durant, Westbrook, and at the time, James Harden during the Olympics, when they heard that the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, is just classic mental warfare from Bryant. It’s the equivalent of how the military drops leaflets into countries they are warring with stating how their government is endangering them, the common citizen.

Kobe+Bryant

So with that, I say, thank you to Kobe Bean Bryant. He has as much a stake in the Thunder’s ascension and success as does any of the veterans that played for the team. He was the target that we went after when we wanted to be successful. Much like an older brother, he frustrated us. But he also motivated us. And we learned much from facing him and defeating him. Here’s hoping that Bryant does come back, while, realistically realizing, that the Bryant we knew, may have gone down in a heap in the Staples Center on Friday night. Whatever the future holds for Kobe, just realize that the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder was shaped, in part, by the man in the Lakers uniform that we feared and respected the most.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview (Game 46 of 82)

grizz thunder

  • When: Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Welcome to the season opener for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Hold on, what? It’s not the season opener? It’s the 46th game of the season? Wow! With the amount of time we’ve been off (4 whole days) and the amount of time since the last home game (over two weeks), you can see how it feels like an entire off-season since we’ve last seen the team live. Also, this is the longest we’ve had to marinate after a loss since Game 5 of last season’s Finals. Needless to say, Oklahoma City is chomping at the bit to play a game at home.

Their opponent for their return back home is the new look Memphis Grizzlies, although Memphis may be a bit short handed tonight. Yesterday, the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay and Hamed Haddadi to the Toronto Raptors for Ed Davis and Jose Calderon. The Grizzlies then turned around and traded Calderon to the Detroit Pistons for Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye. Unfortunately (or luckily for the Thunder), those players will not be available for the Grizzlies tonight.

But it’s not like this will be an easy game. This is basically the same team that took the Thunder to 7 games two postseasons ago in the Western Conference Semis. That team was also without Rudy Gay, who was out following in-season shoulder surgery. The Grizzlies defeated the Thunder in their first meeting this season, 107-97, in Oklahoma City. In that game, Rudy Gay hit every big shot in the 2nd half to keep the Thunder at bay. Much like what the Thunder were facing in their 3rd game of the season, the Grizzlies will be getting acclimated to life without a key component of their team.

The Opponent

grizz

The Grizzlies come into the game with a 29-15 record, good for 4th in the Western Conference. Though they struggle to score points (93.4, 27th in the league), they more than make up for it with the best defense in the league, in terms of opponents’ ppg (89.5, 1st in the league). Offensively, they are highly dependent on post play and taking care of the ball. On defense, they use their physicality and brute strength to gobble up boards and get opponents out of position on offense. The offense is led by the big boys inside, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Though not a very athletic duo, their high basketball IQ more than makes up for their athletic shortcomings. Randolph, who was selected as a reserve to the All-Star game, averages 15.8 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. Gasol, who has been struggling a bit this season, averages 13.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The offense is directed by Mike Conley, who is one of the better floor generals in the league. SG Tony Allen is one of the best defensive wings in the league. The bench is one of the more consistent ones in the league, with 6 players each averaging more than 14.5 minutes and scoring more than 5.5 ppg.

Probable Starters

Memphis Grizzlies

PG – Mike Conley

SG – Wayne Ellington

SF – Tony Allen

PF – Zach Randolph

C – Marc Gasol

Oklahoma City Thunder

PG – Russell Westbrook

SG – Thabo Sefolosha

SF – Kevin Durant

PF – Serge Ibaka

C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

  1. Don’t give this team a chance – Yes, they just lost their best scorer. Yes, they will be shorthanded. But, don’t give this team a chance or they will steal this game. Memphis is a veteran bunch that has won without Rudy Gay before. Take advantage of their lack of depth and play transition basketball and try to draw fouls.  
  2. Control the boards – While Memphis may not score much, their bigs do get a lot of rebounds. This leads to extra opportunities offensively, which is big for a team that is short handed. If necessary, Kevin Durant may need to hedge over to the post to help out on the boards.ibaka randolph
  3. Play Randolph smartly – Serge Ibaka always seems to have trouble against crafty, non-athletic PFs (Randolph, Nowitzki, etc.). Don’t bite on the pump fakes and keep your hands straight up in the air. It seems like when the Thunder play the Grizzlies, Collison always ends up in the game for an extended period of time due to Ibaka’s foul trouble.

The Thunder and their D-League usage

Rio Grande Vipers v Tulsa 66ers

The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement brought changes to how teams could use their D-League affiliates. As NBADL president Dan Reed said, “The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA. By encouraging more robust use of our league to accelerate the development of NBA players and prospects, over time we believe this agreement will lead to more NBA teams operating their own NBA D-League affiliate, an increased number of NBA players that develop in our league, and an even better in-arena experience for our fans.” In other words, the NBA felt the restrictions placed on player movement from the D-League to the NBA were hindering the D-League’s ability to reach its full potential as a true developmental/minor league for the NBA. 

In the previous CBA, a team could only assign a player to the D-League up to three times per season. This lack of flexibility made it difficult for teams to assign players because the assigned player still counted on their 15 man roster. Normally, a team would assign a player to the D-League and leave them there for a three to five game stints, if not longer. While this allowed for some consistency with the player, it became an issue for the team if they had to recall said player due to injuries on the NBA roster. It didn’t matter whether it was a 1 game stint or a 10 game stint, it still counted as a D-League assignment. In the new CBA, a team has no limit as to how many times it can assign a player with 3 years or less experience in the league.

 This new rule becomes very advantageous to teams that have their own D-League affiliate. Currently, there are 11 teams in the league that have their own D-League team. The rest of the 19 teams have to divide their assigned players amongst the remaining 5 D-League teams. The teams that have their own D-League affiliates are able to run the same system throughout their NBA and minor league teams. This leads to a level of consistency in all facets of the organization. Even though the players may not be the same on either level, the defensive and offensive systems can be consistent throughout. On these 11 teams, players that are shuffled back and forth between the “farm” team and the NBA team don’t have to learn new terminology or new schematics between the different teams. The schema remains the same and the confidence that usually accompanies consistency starts to show through.

darko

 This has been very evident with the Thunder’s young players. Oklahoma City is in strange position of being a contending team with young players to develop. Most contending teams have veteran-laden rosters and don’t have the time to develop young talent. Though the Thunder’s roster is young throughout, the main core is veteran enough, having gone through 3 successive playoff runs that culminated with a loss in the Finals last season. With great players comes the cost of paying these superstar players. The Thunder currently have $54.2 million allotted to its top 5 players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, and Kendrick Perkins). That number jumps up to $54.3 million with Ibaka’s extension kicking in, but that is without Martin, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Assuming that the Thunder re-sign Martin, the Thunder are looking at $60+ million in salary for 5 players next season. The need for cheap labor (rookies and young players) becomes very necessary as a team tries to balance being a contender with balancing the proverbial NBA checkbook.

kd rw

 When you are battling for playoff positioning throughout the season, there aren’t many opportunities to develop young talent. Every game counts when a team is looking to secure home court advantage. A slip up here or there can be the difference between a team playing a deciding game at home or on the road. Non-playoff teams have all the time and patience in the world to develop young talent at an NBA level. The Thunder experienced a little bit of this last season when they were forced to play then rookie guard Reggie Jackson heavy minutes as the back-up point guard after Eric Maynor went down 9 games into the season with a torn ACL. Jackson struggled throughout the season in this role and was relegated to the end of the bench by the end of February after the Thunder signed Derek Fisher. With Maynor back this season, the Thunder have been able to send Jackson back and forth between the D-League and the Thunder.

 One of the advantages of this system is that it allows young players to build their muscle memory and confidence. Athletes, especially basketball players, live off of muscle memory. Muscle memory is defined as a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. An example of muscle memory would be typing. Once you learn where the letters are on the keyboard, you can begin typing at your heart’s content without looking at the keyboard. Basketball involves a lot of fast-twitch muscularity due to the read and react nature of the sport. You see a defender leaning in one direction and you react by driving in the opposite direction in a split second. This type of muscle memory can only be duplicated in in-game settings. During the season, teams cannot scrimmage during every practice to replicate in-game situations. The only way to develop this type of muscle memory is to actually play in the games. If a team is not willing to let its young players develop on the NBA floor, the next best option is in the D-League.

lamb

 That muscle memory is extremely important when a player a called upon to give you 5-6 good minutes in a game. When Jeremy Lamb was put into a game against the Detroit Pistons at the beginning of the season, he played 3 minutes, committed 1 turnover and 2 fouls. He played and looked like every bit of the rookie that he was. But after a couple of games in the D-League in which he averaged 23 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 3.3 apg, Lamb’s number was called again against the Atlanta Hawks. This time, he performed beautifully in his 5 minutes, scoring 5 points, grabbing 1 rebound, and getting 1 steal, all while effectively guarding Josh Smith, who had 5 inches and 40 pounds on him. I can’t definitively state that there is a direct correlation between Lamb’s time in the D-League and his performance in that one game, but the confidence he played with definitely had something do with his time in Tulsa.

jackson

 Reggie Jackson is another one of those players that has benefitted from his time in Tulsa. After providing a spark off the bench in a game versus the New Orleans Hornets as an energy player, Jackson was sent to the D-League for a 2 game stint in which he averaged 32 ppg, 8 rpg, and 7 apg. Jackson logged significant minutes in the game prior to his 2 game stint and then logged 13 minutes in the prime time game against the Miami Heat on Christmas day. While he didn’t come anywhere close to averaging the number he put up in Tulsa in those two games, the confidence he played with shows a maturation to his game. Even more significant in the Miami game is that he played the back-up point guard role, while Maynor received a DNP-CD.

 The Thunder have also been sending rookie Perry Jones III to the D-League, along with 2nd year wingman DeAndre Liggins and 3rd year center Daniel Orton. While these players have yet to have a breakout moment in the NBA this season, the ability to play in the D-League and then practice with the NBA team will only improve the skill-set and their confidence. Jones III’s development is of utmost importance to the Thunder, as his skill set as a tweener forward will give the Thunder a serious weapon in the front court as they move forward. 

jones iii

 Confidence and playing time are two of the most important things in the development of a young player. While NBA teams may not be able to provide the young players with copious amounts of playing time, they can provide them with an avenue (the D-League) to continue developing and improving, all while playing basketball in real game situations. The Thunder hope that the pipeline from Tulsa to OKC will provide them with cheap, young talent that will allow them to maintain their championship contending core.

Westbrook and The Boost

This past week, Russell Westbrook signed with Jordan Brand, after being with Nike for the first 4 years of his career. While Westbrook has carved out his own following of fans, he’s always been known as Kevin Durant’s sidekick. The Robin to Durant’s Batman. This generation’s ultimate second banana. There hasn’t been a sidekick this good since Scottie Pippen. But, Pippen never received the boost in popularity that Westbrook is about to receive.

What qualifies for a sidekick? A sidekick has to be a rookie or a very young player that is brought in after the primary player is established to specifically fill the needs the team is missing. Another qualification is that the pairing has to be together for 5+ seasons. For example, Scottie Pippen was obtained by the Chicago Bulls in a draft day deal, while already having an established superstar in Michael Jordan. Russell Westbrook was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics (Oklahoma City Thunder) after they already had an established young star in Kevin Durant. Anfernee Hardaway almost made it to great sidekick status, but injuries and Shaquille O’Neal’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers negated that possibility. The Lebron James/Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh mash-up wouldn’t qualify as sidekicks because they were all alpha males on their respective teams before they joined forces. Kobe Bryant and the aforementioned O’Neal made a great duo, but they were brought onto the Lakers the same year and often quibbled over who was the alpha male. 

To understand the road Westbrook is on, it is important to see what happened to Pippen throughout his career. When Pippen first started college at the University of Central Arkansas, he was a 6’1” walk-on that needed to moonlight as the team’s manager to pay his tuition costs. After 3 more collegiate seasons, a 7 inch growth spurt, and consensus All-NAIA player honors, Pippen was drafted with the 5th overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft to the Seattle Supersonics (who subsequently traded him to the Chicago Bulls). The scouting report on him read as follows:

  • 7’4” wingspan and a 41” vertical
  • Strong outside, but needs work inside
  • Not bad driving to the hoop, but doesn’t look to drive
  • Good foul shooter
  • Can make a three
  • Terrific passer at that position
  • Won’t give you much of anything on the offensive glass, and is a so-so defensive rebounder
  • Excellent defensively and a disruptive force in the passing lanes
  • Good ball handler, but commits a ton of turnovers
  • Could start on most teams

Not necessarily the sexiest of scouting reports for someone who would eventually become one of the top 50 players in league history. While Pippen built his legacy on defense, he was also an apt offensive player, becoming the archetype for the point forward position. During his prime (1989-1999), Pippen had per game averages of 19.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.9 blocks. Not necessarily the offensive prowess that Larry Bird possessed, but with a stat line like that, Pippen should have been heralded as his generation’s defensive Larry Bird. Instead, he was teamed up with arguably the greatest player of any generation in Michael Jordan. There usually isn’t a lot of spotlight left when you are playing with the greatest. Ask 100 people who the lead singer of Aerosmith is, and most will answer Steven Tyler. Ask them who the drummer is, and not many will know the answer.

Pippen’s play on the court should have spurred him to more shoe deals, more advertisement contracts, and more widespread popularity. And yet, when his career was all said and done, you couldn’t help but wonder whether Pippen got everything that was owed to him. There were the stories of how Pippen felt he wasn’t getting paid what he deserved (which he wasn’t). There were the rumors that he felt slighted being outside of the limelight, when he provided so much to the team. While he did have his own shoe line (the PIPs) from Nike, they only lasted about two series. So, needless to say, not many companies bought into Scottie Pippen.

It wasn’t Jordan’s fault, though. Most of the blame lies squarely on Pippen. He didn’t have the same tact with the media that Jordan did. He was dismissive and defensive at times with reporters. Then there were the crunch time situations. Those critical times in games that live in lore and become mythologized. It’s not that Pippen didn’t perform well during those times. On the contrary, he performed great during crunch time. But he’s instead remembered for the times he quit on his team in the most critical of moments. There was the time he sat out Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons with a migraine headache. The Bulls eventually lost that game. Probably the most damning, though, was the one where he sat out the final 1.8 seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Knicks because Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc to take the final shot, instead of Pippen. To make matters worse, Kukoc actually hit the game winner. This one was the most damaging because it came at a time when the Bulls were his team due to Jordan’s hiatus into baseball. When you are known to quit on your team during crucial periods, your popularity takes a big hit.

Which brings us to the best sidekick of this generation, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Like Pippen, Westbrook was not highly decorated coming out of college. Like Pippen, Westbrook was drafted by a team that already had a young star in Kevin Durant. Like Pippen, Westbrook is seen as not being very media friendly. Coincidentally, Durant, much like Jordan, is viewed as a media favorite. And, while not by his own doing, Russell was also involved in a critical game snafu, when Thunder coach Scott Brooks sat an ineffective Westbrook for the entire 4th quarter of Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conferences Finals.

But, not everything is negative when it comes to Pippen and Westbrook. Both of these players are insanely loyal to their teams and teammates. Pippen had a couple opportunities to seek greener pastures during the championship run, but decided to sign for less to stay with the Bulls. Westbrook could have done the same last season, but decided to sign for the allowable max. Both players are highly competitive, with possible chips on their shoulders from being labeled second bananas. Both players are very team oriented, as evidenced by them sacrificing a little of their own games to coexist with two great players. The good severely outweighs the bad when it comes to Westbrook and Pippen, but the bad usually has more advertising power.

Which is why I found the signing of Westbrook to Jordan brand to be a bit ironic. Not ironic in the sense that he doesn’t deserve it. But ironic in the sense that a move like this will probably propel Westbrook into superstar territory, as far as media exposure goes. Into a territory that Scottie Pippen unfortunately never reached. With an endorsement team that includes Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, and Michael Jordan, himself, Russell Westbrook will have plenty of opportunity to expand his brand. He already has a slogan in place (WhyNot?), and already has a following outside of basketball because of his unique fashion sense. In a way, Jordan is helping this generation’s top sidekick become what his sidekick should have become.

The Thunder and their Manchurian Candidate

During the offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder did something very unconventional. Instead of hiring a scout to serve as their video coordinator/analyst, they, instead, hired premier basketball video blogger Sebastian Pruiti. For those of you who don’t know who Pruiti is, he ran a website called nbaplaybook.com, in which he used clips of games to break down film and explain why a team may or may not have been successful in certain sets. Pruiti did a great job of explaining the content in a way that even the average NBA fan could understand.

His understanding of the game was not without any background. He served as a volunteer assistant coach for the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders. Then, he served as an assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League. Needless to say, the man is an astute basketball mind. One of the best basketball writers of our generation, Bill Simmons, noticed this and decided to hire Pruiti for his newly formed Grantland multimedia conglomerate. In fact, Simmons was the one that broke the news on Twitter that Pruiti had been hired by the Thunder.

The thought of a Simmons’ disciple going to the Thunder, though, got my conspiracy  mind thinking. On the one hand, Simmons has written about his disdain for how the Seattle Supersonics eventually became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not that he necessarily carries any ill regard for the team itself, but more for the process that eventually landed the team in the Great Plains. As punishment, he has yet to call the team by its current moniker in any of his writings, instead referring to them as the Zombie Sonics. On the other hand, Simmons’ crowning achievement in life would be to someday become an NBA GM. It’s a dichotomous train of thought that is one part Manchurian Candidate and one part Great Expectations.

Think about it. Before Simmons hired Pruiti, he probably kept tabs on him for years like a spy cultivating an asset. He was the best video blogging analyst in the game and worked on several basketball-related sites. As a basketball junkie, Simmons had to immediately recognize his work and his talent. One of Simmons’ most important traits as a writer is his ability to read situations before they occur. He has correctly predicted the “Ewing Theory” on many occasions, and has a keen understanding of how people will react to certain situations. These are all characteristics of a great point guard; someone who sets things in motion, directs the traffic, sees things before they happen, and makes proper adjustments whenever necessary.

I could see Simmons playing chess, while everyone else plays checkers. He knew that Thunder GM Sam Presti is very analytical and values statistics as a means to better answer questions. He also knew that Presti is young and probably very in tune with the basketball blogosphere and advanced cybermetrics. In terms of probability, there’s a lot better chance that someone like Presti or Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey would hire Pruiti, than someone like Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars or Indiana Pacers GM Donnie Walsh.

Eventually, Presti finally took the bait and hired Pruiti. And with that, Simmons finally had his Manchurian candidate in place. As George W. Bush would say, “Mission (half-way) accomplished!” As a video coordinator/analyst, Pruiti’s job is to break down every one of the Thunder’s possessions (both offensive and defensive), looking to see what works and what doesn’t work for the team. If coaching were compared to another Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, Pruiti would be the Ghost of Coaching Past and Future, while Scott Brooks would be the Ghost of Coaching Present. The information Pruiti garners from game film will help steer how the team plays in the future.

With Pruiti in the door, does he begin to show skewed video evidence to the Thunder front office suggesting a Keith Bogans for James Harden trade would be beneficial to the team? Does he show slanted video proof that Kendrick Perkins should get the ball more in late game situations? Does he systematically try to derail the team’s ascension from the inside out?

Or perhaps, the motive is completely selfish on Simmons’ part. Let’s say Pruiti climbs up the coaching ranks and gets in good with the owner of a struggling team. Who’s to say that Pruiti won’t put in a good word to the owner that Simmons is a master capologist (via ESPN’s Trade Machine, of course), a burgeoning talent evaluator, and a great judge of character? With those qualifications, which struggling team wouldn’t hire Simmons as their GM?

That would literally make Simmons, Mr. Magwich, to Pruiti’s Pip. While Simmons may have assisted Pruiti in the past and present, Pruiti may some day perform the quid pro quo for Simmons in the future. In life it’s all about your contacts and the more connections you make, the more possibilities you have. Who knows, maybe one day Sebastian Pruiti will be the Thunder’s head coach and Bill Simmons will be the Thunder’s (gulp!) GM. That would be the irony of all ironies. At least then, he would probably have to mention the Thunder by name.