Tag Archives: Eastern Conference

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southeast Divison

Southeast Division Preview

1. Washington Wizards

beal wall gortat wizards

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

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

Key Additions:

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

Key Departures:

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

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

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 49-33

2. Charlotte Hornets

walker jefferson hornets bobcats

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

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

Key Additions:

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

Key Departures:

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

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

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

3. Miami Heat

wade bosh heat

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

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

Key Additions:

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

Key Departures:

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

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

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 44-38

4. Atlanta Hawks

horford millsap korver hawks

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

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

Key Additions:

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

Key Departures:

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

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

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 40-42

5. Orlando Magic

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Orlando Magic

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

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

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

Key Departures:

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

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

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 26-56

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

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Atlantic Division

Atlantic Division Preview

1. Toronto Raptors 

raptors ross valanciunas lowry derozan

Last season: 48-34 (1st in the Atlantic Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 7, 1st round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets

Key additions:

  • Bruno Caboclo – Draft (No. 20 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jordan Hamilton – Free agent signing
  • James Johnson – Free agent signing
  • Lucas Nogueira – Obtained in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks
  • Lou Williams –  Obtained in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks

Key departures:

  • John Salmons – Traded to the Atlanta Hawks
  • Steve Novak – Traded to the Utah Jazz

Season Preview – The Toronto Raptors are in prime position to build off the most successful season in franchise history. The young nucleus of Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, and Terrence Ross is intact and a year older, with Derozan and Valanciunas having just participated in the FIBA World Cup. The Raptors acquired Lou Williams from the Hawks to serve as their offensive firepower off the bench. And they are also developing two Brazilian big men (Caboclo and Nogueria) who may pay dividends in 2015-16.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Raptors make it to the 2nd round of the Eastern Conference playoffs and have at least 2 All-Stars.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 52-30

2. New York Knicks

knicks shumpert anthony bargnani hardaway

Last season: 37-45 (3rd in the Atlantic Division, 9th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key additions:

  • Quincy Acy – Obtained in a trade with the Sacramento Kings
  • Jose Calderon – Obtained in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Samuel Dalembert – Obtained in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Cleanthony Early – Draft (No. 34 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Shane Larkin – Obtained in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Jason Smith – Free agent signing

Key departures:

  • Tyson Chandler – Traded to the Dallas Mavericks
  • Raymond Felton – Traded to the Dallas Mavericks

Season Preview – Two of the biggest additions for the team have been Phil Jackson (president of basketball operations) and Derek Fisher (head coach). With Carmelo Anthony in the fold for the next 4 seasons guaranteed and plenty of cap space coming up in 2015-16, the Knicks are starting to look like they have a plan. Fisher will likely implement the triangle offense, which will play off the scoring abilities of Anthony and JR Smith to maximize the effect of role players like Calderon, Amare Stoudemire, and Tim Hardaway Jr. It will be a bit of a transition year, but in the weak Eastern Conference, the Knicks will have the ability to make the playoffs.

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 43-39

3. Brooklyn Nets

nets williams lopez

Last season: 44-38 (2nd in the Atlantic Division, 6th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • Bojan Bogdanovic – Signed Eurostash
  • Markel Brown – Draft (No. 44 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jarrett Jack – Obtained in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Sergey Karasev – Obtained in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers

Key departures:

  • Paul Pierce – Signed with the Washington Wizards
  • Andray Blatche – Unsigned
  • Shaun Livingston – Signed with the Golden State Warriors
  • Marcus Thornton –  Traded to the Boston Celtics

Season Preview – The Brooklyn Nets seem to be on the cusp of a rebuild (reload?). Their “all in” move from last offseason (acquiring Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry from the Celtics) did not pan out and the Nets now find themselves with only one of the those 3 still on the roster. Brook Lopez (foot) and Deron Williams (both ankles) are once again coming into the season recovering from surgeries, and Garnett seems to know the end of his career is near. The Nets have some good young role players in Mason Plumlee, Bogdanovic, Karasev, and Teague, but their star players are either at the end of their run or are injury-prone.

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

Projected 2014-15 Record: 40-42

4. Boston Celtics

celtics smart young

Last season: 25-57 (4th in the Atlantic Division, 12th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Marcus Smart – Draft (No. 6 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Marcus Thornton – Obtained in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets
  • Evan Turner – Free agent signing
  • James Young – Draft (No. 17 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Tyler Zeller – Obtained in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers

Key Departures:

  • Kris Humphries – Signed with the Washington Wizards
  • Jerryd Bayless – Signed with the Milwaukee Bucks

Season Preview – The Celtics are in the beginnings of a rebuild and would like nothing more than to use this season to get their young core (Smart, Young, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Avery Bradley) plenty of development and playing time together. Along with that, the team has two valuable expiring contracts in Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass to help out in their rebuilding process.

2014-15 will be successful if: The young players show progression and the Celtics end up with a Top 7 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 23-59

5. Philadelphia 76ers

76ers carter williams noel

Last season: 19-63 (5th in the Atlantic Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Joel Embiid – Draft (No. 3 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Dario Saric – Draft (No. 12 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jerami Grant – Draft (No. 39 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Luc Richard Mbah a Moute – Obtained in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • KJ McDaniels – Draft (No. 32 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Alexy Shved – Obtained in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves

Key Departures:

  • Thaddeus Young – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves

Season Preview – I’ve never seen a more obvious tank job in my life. The entire being of the 76ers at this point is to collect draft picks and young players at whatever cost. That’s not necessarily a bad plan, but everyone else who has done has at least attempted to look like they were trying. They drafted 2 players in the first round in the last draft that likely will not play for the organization this season (Embiid and Saric). This will be Nerlens Noel’s rookie season and last season’s Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, is coming off off-season shoulder surgery. The team traded its best veteran in Thad Young and heads into the season as one of the youngest teams in the league.

2014-15 will be successful if: The 76ers end up with a Top 3 pick and their young players continue to develop.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 12-70

On Second Thought: An NBA Postscript

thunder warriors tip off

When the season begins, every writer and media pundit has predictions for how teams will do. Sometimes they are spot on. Sometimes they are dead wrong. Here a collective of how many people thought the seasons of each team would go, and how they really went.

Atlanta Hawks – After years of mediocrity, the Hawks are in a position to begin rebuilding with the selection of Dennis Schroder and Lucas Nogueira.

  • Reality: The Hawks are still mediocre, but crept into the playoffs in the terrible Eastern Conference.

Boston Celtics – With the team blown up, Boston looks to rebuild through the draft.

  • Reality: Boston actually performed a little bit better than people thought, but are still in rebuild mode.

Brooklyn Nets – With the acquisition of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry from Boston, the Nets look to stack a team to contend with the likes of Miami and Indiana.

  • Reality – It took a buzzer beater from Joe Johnson in early January to finally get this team kick started. Since then, they are 34-15, and appear to be the strongest contender in the East to challenged Miami and Indiana.

Charlotte Bobcats: Biggest free agent signing in team history, but the team still has too many holes to contend for a playoff spot.

  • Reality – New head coach Steve Clifford brought a defense first attitude that transformed the identity of the team and made them competitive every night. Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker have formed a dangerous offensive duo that could give a contender trouble come playoff time.

Chicago Bulls – The return of Derrick Rose will bring this team back to the position it was two seasons ago: a title contender.

APphoto_Bulls Rose Basketball

  • Reality – Yeah, about that return. It lasted 10 games. A torn meniscus derailed Rose’s comeback plans and once again, derailed Chicago’s chances of contending. They still play hard and will give whoever they play fits in the playoffs because of their defense. But the reality is that, without Rose, they don’t have any one player dynamic enough to take over in the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers – With 2 No. 1 picks and 2 No. 4 picks on the roster within the past 3 years, the young Cavs are looking to take the next step as a franchise.

  • Reality – Sometimes, youth and immaturity go hand in hand. Going from a rebuilding team to a playoff contender can be a difficult leap to take if most of your players have never been there.

Dallas Mavericks – The acquisitions of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon will help Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs contend for a playoff spot.

  • Reality – That basically is the reality. A healthy Dirk and an efficient (by his standards) Monta Ellis have helped Dallas get back to the playoffs after a one year absence.

Denver Nuggets – The loss of Andre Iguadola will affect Denver’s defense, but their depth will help keep them in the playoffs.

  • Reality – Injuries (old and new) destroyed the depth the Nuggets had and prevented them from reaching the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.

Detroit Pistons – The acquisitions of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith should help young big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe make the jump into their first playoff foray.

  • Reality – The continued development of Drummond and Monroe could not overcome the inefficiency of Smith and Jennings. The Pistons disappointed and long time GM Joe Dumars was let go.

Golden State Warriors – The addition of Andre Iguadola will provide the perimeter defense to balance the offense provided by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Warriors will improve upon their surprising season from the previous year.

  • Reality – While the team has improved in terms of record, injuries to Andrew Bogut and David Lee may prevent the team from improving upon their 2nd round exit from last season’s playoffs.

Houston Rockets – The winners of last summer’s free agency sweepstake should easily see the team rise from playoff team to title contending team with the addition of Dwight Howard.

dwight howard houston rockets

  • Reality – Houston is a fringe title contender, but seems to struggle, surprisingly, on defense. Houston’s perimeter defense is porous, at best, which leaves Howard on an island in the paint and shooters open on the perimeter.

Indiana Pacers – The team that was a game away from knocking the Heat out of the playoffs looks to take that experience and build upon it.

  • Reality – What once looked like to an inevitable meeting between the Pacers and Heat came into doubt when the Pacers struggled after the All-Star break. Having recovered enough to get the No. 1 seed in the East, it will be interesting to see which Pacers team we get the rest of the way: the one from Nov – Jan or the one from the middle of February on.

Los Angeles Clippers – The team built around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and a bevy of shooters will throw their hat into the title contending conversation and will be a force come playoff time.

  • Reality – Chris Paul has Chris Paul’d and Blake Griffin has become what we all thought he would become (a double/double monster). The Clippers are a title contender if their shooters, namely JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford, remain healthy.

Los Angeles Lakers – If the team can stay afloat until Kobe returns in December, they could be a dark horse threat in the Western Conference.

  • Reality – Those 6 games in December were kind of like watching Michael Jordan in a Wizard uniform. But a lot like Derrick Rose, Kobe got re-injured and didn’t play another game for the Lakers. Unlike the Bulls though, the Lakers weren’t built to sustain a season without Kobe, and withered away under a cloud of Nick Young yolo-jumpers.

Memphis Grizzlies – After reaching (and getting swept) in the Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies are hoping the additions of  Mike Miller and Kostas Koufos will help take the team to the next level.

  • Reality – After stumbling a bit early in the season due to an injury to Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have recovered enough to secure a playoff spot. The question is whether this team has reached its ceiling.

Miami Heat – The defending champs should blaze through the regular season as one of the top teams, and have as good a chance as anyone else to find themselves holding the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.

  • Reality – Yep, it’s Miami. It’s Lebron. They coasted and played mediocre (by their standards), but still managed to get the No. 2 spot in the East while resting most of their main players throughout the season.

Milwaukee Bucks – After getting swept by the Heat in the previous season, the Bucks look to get younger and build for the future. Brandon Knight, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders will get plenty of development time this season.

giannis antetokounmpo bucks

  • Reality – If the goal was to get younger and build for the future, mission accomplished. The Bucks handed the keys of the ship to the kids and the results have gone as expected. The worst record and the best chance at drafting an impact player in this loaded draft.

Minnesota Timberwolves – The addition of Kevin Martin and the health (FINALLY!) of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio should finally propel this team into the playoffs.

  • Reality – It’s hard to make the playoffs in the West. The Wolves had a +2.8 in terms of margin of victory, but still ended up 10th in the West. A positive MOV usually means you blow opponents out when you win, but you lose the close games. It’s the story of the Minnesota’s season.

New Orleans Pelicans – New name, new uniform, same rebuild. The addition of Jrue Holiday and the continued development of Anthony Davis should help the team improve from the previous season, but it won’t be enough for a playoff spot.

  • Reality – Injuries really did a number on the Pelicans this season, but above prediction was spot on.

New York Knicks – The ultimate hot/cold team. They did nothing to drastically improve the team in the offseason. They could either duplicate last year’s feat and win over 50 games or they could completely bottom out and win less than 40.

  • Reality – The Knicks took what was behind Door No. 2. The Knicks came out the gate struggling to shoot the ball, and never recovered consistently throughout the season. They still had a chance at making the playoffs in the final month, but their inconsistent play was too much for them in the end.

Oklahoma City Thunder – The Thunder got their first dose of reality since settling in the Great Plains with Russell Westbrook’s injury. How the Thunder, and especially Kevin Durant, handle the absence of Russell Westbrook will go a long way to determining how this season will play out. Will they be the one man band they were in the playoffs last season or will they be more diverse and share the load?

slim reaper

  • Reality – Not only did the Thunder weather the initial storm, but they also weathered another storm in the middle of the season. Not only did Kevin Durant share the load, but he also learned how to completely take over a game. The “Slim Reaper” stretch from mid-January to the All-Star break pushed his game to an entire different level and probably won him the MVP. The team never wavered and is currently ahead of where most people thought they would be in the beginning of the season.

Orlando Magic – The post-Dwight Howard rebuild is in full-swing. The Magic have a ton of young players they need to develop in the next few seasons. This season will be no different than the last.

  • Reality – Yep, the Magic are in full rebuild mode.

Philadelphia 76ers – Another team that is in full rebuild mode. The team traded its only All-Star, Jrue Holiday, for Nerlens Noel and will probably look to trade Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes who will be free agents at the end of the year.

  • Reality – The prediction for this team was tame. This team hit rock bottom (tanktastic!) and then decided to keep on digging (26 game losing streak).

Phoenix Suns – Another team that is looking towards the future and not focusing on the present. The team traded their only post presence in Marcin Gortat for someone that will probably not suit up at all this season (Emeka Okafor). This combination of players will have the fans in Phoenix asking if the Sun has set yet.

  • Reality – Wow, completely wrong on this assessment. This is why you play the games. The Suns banded together under first year coach Jeff Hornacek, and surprised everyone from day one with their up-tempo offense and relentless energy. Unfortunately, their youth showed in the final week of the season as they dropped the two games they needed against the two teams ahead of them.

Portland Trailblazers – A talented team that has underachieved the last few seasons, the Trailblazers are at a cross-roads as to what to do with this current roster. They have good players, but the team has no idea what it’s ceiling is. If everyone stays healthy, this team could make some noise in the Western Conference.

  • Reality – The Trailblazers made it through the season virtually unscathed and have finally begun to put it all together. The starting 5 has been an offensive powder keg all season, but their depth and defense leave a lot to be desired.

Sacramento Kings – The fact that the Kings are in Sacramento for the foreseeable future makes this season a success for Sacramentans. On the court, this team is beginning to resemble a rebuild gone wrong. The key player (DeMarcus Cousins) is an immature malcontent and the rest of the team is a ragtag bunch of inefficient shooters, undersized power forwards, and shoot first point guards.

  • Reality – The Kings shuffled their personnel around throughout the season, but the result has been the same…bad basketball. Good news is that Cousins seems to be maturing and developing into a franchise player.

San Antonio Spurs – Every year, 29 other teams wonder when San Antonio will irreversibly age. And every year, 29 teams come out disappointed. With a team that was a Kawhi Leonard free throw away from winning the championship, this year will be business as usual. They’ll probably rest their players, win games, and end up near the top of the Western Conference.

tim duncan spurs

 

  • Reality – Yep, your 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. Ol’ Faithful

Toronto Raptors – The Raptors are a team that is in the decision-making portion for their rebuild. They have developed some young players and now they have to see who is kept and who is quelled. With their inefficient shooters and inexperienced post players, look for this year’s Raptors team to look a lot like last season’s.

  • Reality – Well, surprise surprise. It’s a good thing the Thunder has the Raptor’s pick from last season, because it wasn’t going to be any good this season. The Raptors’ season took off after the Rudy Gay trade that gave them a ton of balance and depth. The young players, namely, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, have developed into good players that the team can build off of. The lottery team has jumped all the way to the 3 spot in the East.

Utah Jazz – When a team doesn’t sign it’s two best players, who also happen to be free agents, that is usually a sign of an impending rebuild.

  • Reality – While the Jazz are currently in a rebuild, it is a staggered rebuild where they have been stockpiling young players (Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks) for the past 3 seasons and now want to start a full-on rebuild. Results are still inconclusive.

Washington Wizards – With the addition of Marcin Gortat, the Wizards are starting to put together an extremely formidable starting line-up. If they can just get over the proverbial hump, they should be a power in the East for the next couple of seasons.

  • Reality – It took them a while to make it over that proverbial hump, but once they got a few games over .500, they maintained and are in the thick of the playoff race in the East.

Scoreboard Watching (2014 edition)

durant westbrook thunder

If you are a fan of a team, you’re always aware of your team’s games. But, sometimes, if you are wholly invested in one team, you tend to miss what out on what is going on around the rest of the league. Last season, I wrote a similar article concerning the other teams Thunder fans should be looking out for as that season closed (namely the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors). In a vacuum, a fan should only be worried about their team. But, in reality, with playoff positioning and/or draft positioning at stake, watching how other teams perform at the end of the season can add some drama to a point in the season where drama is sometimes lacking. This season, there are 5 teams Thunder fans needs to be paying attention to than can affect their near future.

1. San Antonio Spurs

  • Why it matters: The No. 1 seed in the Western Conference (and in the league) is at stake.
  • Team’s outlook: Currently 59-16 (1st in West), with 4 road games and 3 home games remaining.

Serge Ibaka

This is very reminiscent to what happened last season. This time though, it seems like the Spurs are far enough ahead to not have to worry about the Thunder chasing down the No. 1 seed from behind. The Spurs are currently on a roll, coming into the Thunder game having won 19 in a row, and hold a 4 game lead over the Thunder. With their penchant to rest starters late in the season, the Thunder still have a slight chance to catch the Spurs. But it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Spurs will head into the playoffs with the No. 1 seed in the West. One thing to remember is that if San Antonio does stumble, the Thunder own the tie-breaker over them.

2. Dallas Mavericks

  • Why it matters: The Thunder own the Mavericks’ first round pick if it is outside the Top 20.
  • Team’s outlook: Currently 44-31, (7th in the West) with 5 road games and 2 home games remaining

The Thunder got this draft pick in the Harden deal from Houston. There are two factions when it comes to this pick. Those that want the pick this season (slotted to be in the 21-23 range) and those that want the pick to go all the way until 2018, when it becomes unprotected. It will all depend on if Dallas make the playoffs or not. If they make the playoffs, they’ll be one of the top 10 teams in the league, thus garnering a pick in the 21-30 range, which transfers over to the Thunder. If they don’t make the playoffs, the Mavericks will pick in the lottery and will keep the pick.

The Mavericks are battling with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns for the last two seeds in the Western Conference playoff race. Of the remaining games between the 3 teams, the Mavericks face the harder road with their opponents having a .525 winning percentage combined. But the road will not be easy for either one of the 3 teams because, NEWSFLASH!, they all play in the Western Conference. That being said, the Mavericks had their opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the other two teams, but flubbed an 8 game home stand to the tune of going 4-4. Luckily, all three teams play each other in the final week of the season.

I’m torn as to what I want to do with this pick. Part of me thinks that Thunder GM Sam Presti, with two draft picks late in the first round, could package those to move up a couple slots and get a shooter like Nik Stauskas of Michigan. But part of me also wants to see what happens if this pick actually reaches 2018 unprotected. Unless Dirk Nowitzki goes on Tim Duncan’s offseason training program, I see his effectiveness, and that of the Mavs, steadily going down in these next couple of seasons. And hopefully, they completely bottom out in the 2017-18 season.

3 and 4. Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat

  • Why it matters: The only teams that matter in the Eastern Conference
  • Teams’ Outlooks – With a virtual tie for the Eastern Conference top spot, these two teams meet one last time on April 11th. Indiana currently leads the season series 2-1.

heat pacers

With a 2.5 game lead over these two teams in the league standings, the Thunder are in control to maintain home court advantage against any of the East’s top teams if they meet in the NBA Finals. The major issue here is whether the Pacers will give Miami a run for their money and make the Eastern Conference Finals somewhat competitive. While Miami has been surging in the last 10 games, going 7-3, the Pacers have been doing the exact opposite, going 7-10 in their last 17 games.

The jump from being a good team to becoming an elite team is the hardest jump to make in the NBA. Not only do you have to start positioning your role players correctly, but your star players have to start taking that next step. For Indiana, a combination of questionable in-season moves and lack of player progression has slightly slowed that progression from good team to elite team. The mid-season trade that sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen has yet to bear fruit. And the mid-season signing of Andrew Bynum can probably be deemed a failure due to a reoccurrence of knee issues for the center. In addition, Paul George and Roy Hibbert have failed to significantly improve from where they were in the beginning of the season. With this recent slide, rumors of infighting and selfishness have begun to sneak into the vernacular that describes the Pacers. The mental aspect of making the jump from a good team to an elite team is the hardest thing for a young team to grasp, and its currently showing with these Pacers.

The reason this matters to the Thunder is because the Western Conference playoffs are going to be a gauntlet. The first round match-ups will be formidable and the series will only get tougher from there. If Miami is able to skip through the East playoffs easily, and get some rest in the process, that could spell trouble for the team that comes out of the West, regardless of who it is.

5. New York Knicks

  • Why it matters: The Denver Nuggets own the Knicks’ pick for this draft
  • Team’s Outlook – Currently 33-43 (8th in the East), with 3 road and 3 home games remaining.

Looking towards the future at division rivals, the team that has the best chance of getting better quickly is the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets suffered a myriad of injuries this season that prevented them from ever making a run at the playoffs. But with many of those players coming back next season and a potential lottery pick, the Nuggets are in position to get back to their winning ways. If the Knicks make the playoffs, their pick moves down to the No. 15 slot. But if the Knicks miss the playoffs, Denver will be slotted to pick in the 7-9 range, while also having the potential of getting a top 3 pick.

Seeding doesn’t seem to affect the Thunder that much. They know they can beat the Spurs in San Antonio, if necessary. Their main goals to finish this season are to stay ahead of the LA Clippers, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers, and to get/remain healthy. As the season rolls to a close, it’ll be interesting to keep a vested interest in these 5 teams, as their outcomes all have the potential of affecting the Thunder in the near future.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 58 of 82)

westbrook durant irving thompson cavs thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

There is no way that a game in late February should feel like a must-win. But this game almost has that feel. Not necessarily for anything regarding the Thunder’s record or seeding. But more to get the bad taste of the last week out of our collective mouths. A week long All-Star break followed by losses against two top 5 teams in the next week. Thunder nation has not seen a notch in the win column in two whole weeks. Going that long between victories usually involves an offseason for the Thunder.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have an almost Washington Wizards-like relationship with the Thunder. It’s a game that the Thunder should win easily, based on record. But every time Oklahoma City plays Cleveland, it turns into a dog fight with somebody on the opposing team (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, etc) going off. This is the first meeting of the year between these two teams. The teams split the season series last season.

The Opponent

kyrie irving all star mvp cavs

Due to their streaky nature, Cleveland is an extremely difficult team to gauge. Their record currently stands at 22-36, which puts them 5 games back of the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. In their last 15 games, the Cavs have lost 6 games in a row, then won 6 games in a row, and are currently on a 3 game losing streak. Some days they look like they can be righting the ship and other days they look like they should be tanking for a high lottery pick. The Cavs are led by All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving, who is currently averaging 21.2 points, 6.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. His ability to get into the paint is the key to Cleveland’s attack. On the wing, mid-season acquisition Luol Deng has yet to find his footing on this team, and his numbers have dropped since his trade from the Chicago Bulls.  Up front, Tristan Thompson has shown signs of being a double/double machine, but has had trouble with consistency. Spencer Hawes, who was recently picked up from the Philadelphia 76ers, provides a great release valve for the pick and roll attack of Irving. Cleveland’s bench depth will be impacted as Anderson Varejao, CJ Miles, Dion Waiters will all be out with injury.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Kyrie Irving
  • SG – Jarrett Jack
  • SF – Luol Deng
  • PF – Tristan Thompson
  • C – Spencer Hawes

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Small ball – Spencer Hawes is a perimeter oriented center. While Steven Adams may be more mobile than Kendrick Perkins, having to guard a perimeter oriented center completely negates his strengths on the defensive end. The Thunder will probably be best served going small for most of the game and having Durant guard Hawes on the perimeter and having Ibaka guard Thompson on the inside.

durant jackson hawes thunder cavs

2. Depth – With the Cavs’ depth being decimated by injuries and this being the 2nd night of a back to back, look for the Thunder to get out in transition and try to wear the Cavaliers out. Even if Cleveland keeps it close, this could be a game where they run out of gas late in the fourth quarter.

3. Point guards – More than anything, the Thunder point guards (Westbrook, Derek Fisher, and Reggie Jackson) need to establish themselves defensively. Irving is the only player on the Cavs’ squad that can create his own shot consistently and he has beaten the Thunder in the past.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat preview (Game 47 of 82)

lebron james kevin durant thunder heat

  • When: Wednesday, 29 January 2014 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

Game 47 of 82. Just another game, right? WRONG! All the players and coaches will say the same clichéd “this game is no different than the rest of them”. But they are lying to you. This game is very important for a myriad of reasons for both teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the hottest team in the league right now and the Miami Heat are the hottest team in the NBA this decade.

The NBA always prides itself in pitting the best players (and their teams) against each other. Unfortunately, a rash of injuries have prevented that from happening consistently this season. But here is where the NBA finds itself a few weeks before the All-Star break. The Pacers and Trailblazers both have great underdog stories. The Spurs are like that old guy at the YMCA that consistently drains mid-range jumpers while sporting 2 knee braces and goggles. But the NBA knows what it wants…the two best players pitted against each other. Luckily, the two best players are also possibly on the two best teams and have a possibility of meeting in late May/early June (health permitting, of course).

This is the first meeting of year between these two championship contenders. Dating back to Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder have lost 6 straight games to the Heat. Taking Game 5 of the Finals out of the equation, each game has come down to the final minutes of the 4th quarter. The two teams will meet again the Thursday after the All Star break.

The Opponent

miami heat harlem shake

The Miami Heat find themselves at 32-12, two and a half games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They, of course, are the winners of the last two NBA championship and feature the winner of the last 4 of 5 MVP awards, Lebron James. Many have said that the Heat are currently coasting and not necessarily playing their best ball. I honestly don’t blame Miami, though. They’ve played in the last 3 NBA Finals, so their extended schedule may feel like they’ve played 4 seaons in 3 years. Add to that the fact that the major players on the team also participated in the Olympics during that span, and you can see why they might be coasting a bit this season. Regardless of coasting, the Heat are still in the top 10 in points scored and points allowed. Their Achilles heel may be rebounding where they rank dead last in the league. The Heat are led by their big 3 of James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. All three are performing at high levels with Wade having to implement a resting plan due to knee issues. Their offense depends greatly on dribble penetration and 3-point shooting. The Heat are in the top half of the league in made 3-pointers (8.1 makes/game), and make them at a high clip (37.4%, good for 7th in the league). James and Wade are usually the dribble penetrators who dish out to a bevy of shooters in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers. The bench is veteran-laden and can be dangerous at times, with Norris Cole, Michael Beasley, and Chris Andersen providing the relief.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

  • PG – Mario Chalmers
  • SG – Dwayne Wade
  • SF – Lebron James
  • PF – Shane Battier
  • C – Chris Bosh

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Scott Brooks – Will he adjust his line-up accordingly to combat Miami’s use of space or will he stubbornly stick with the line-up he’s always used? That will be the question heading into the game. I have no doubt that Brooks will adjust his line-up throughout the game after the first 6 minutes of the 1st quarter and the first 6 minutes of the 3rd quarter. But, the starting unit has had its issues with the Heat coming out of the gate. In the past six games against the Heat, the Thunder have yielded 31 points to the Heat in the time it takes from Perkins to be substituted out of the game. That’s an average of over 5 points that the team has to continuously claw their way back from early on. That’s takes a toll on a team heading into the final quarter.

perkins brooks thunder

And let me reiterate…I’m not putting this on Perkins. He is great against traditional post players and that may come into play if the Heat begin to use Greg Oden more often. But putting Perk on Bosh is just a bad match up and causes the defense to over correct and compensate for defensive lapses leading to open threes and blown coverages.

2. Picking your poison defensively – The Heat are going to do one of two things: either drive the basketball or dish it out for a perimeter shot. James and Wade are great at getting into the lane and sucking in the defense. Once in the lane, their options open up like a Golden Corral buffet. They are extremely adept at finishing (even with contact) or they can pass it out to one of their 3-point shooter or to Bosh for the mid-range shot.

The key is to try to stay in front of James. Kevin Durant is the best defender against James as his length bothers him, but that sometimes means that you are exposing KD to foul trouble. To combat this, the Thunder will shuffle defenders against Lebron, sending Sefolosha, Ibaka, or maybe even Perry Jones to guard James in order to ease the load on Durant.

When the ball is kicked out, the Thunder need to hustle back to the 3-point line and use their long wingspans to their advantage. This is where it may be advantageous to have Jackson on the floor due to his wingspan.

3. MVP – Will the MVP race be decided today? Probably not. It is currently Durant’s to lose. But if James defeats Durant, the national narrative will probably begin to change in favor of James. The stats mean nothing if your team is constantly losing to the team the competitor is on. If Durant truly is tired of coming in 2nd, tonight will go a long way to changing that narrative.

durant james thunder heat

(Bonus) 4. Getting the gorilla off the Thunder’s back – Even though it doesn’t count until June, the Thunder need to exorcise some demons in regards to their futility against the Heat. Regardless of whether the Thunder are missing their second best player or not, they’ve been playing in a fashion that if they do lose this game, it will still be a disappointment. For the psyche of the team moving forward, they have to win one of these next two games against Miami.

Thunder Halftime Report: 2013-14 Edition

durant fisher thunder

Forty one down, forty one more to go. The first half of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder has played out like a full season. From injuries, to returns, to reinjuries, to MVP pushes, it has been a roll coaster of emotion that has run the gamut. Through it all, the Thunder have found a way to win 31 games and remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.

Here are 10 thoughts from the first half of the season:

10. The Western Conference is head and shoulders above the Eastern Conference in terms of competitiveness.

The Western Conference features 10 teams at .500 or above, while the Eastern Conference, until recently, only had 3 teams with that same win percentage range. Within the past week, three teams have joined the fray in the Eastern Conference with records of 20-20. The fact still remains, though: there’s an ocean sized gulf in the competitive balance between the two conferences. While Indiana and Miami are the crème de la crème of the EC, the West has at least 6 suitors for the top spot.

I have no doubt the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers will be a great 7-game affair. But the amount of work that both of those teams have to put in to get to that point will pale in comparison to the battles that will be waged in every single round of the Western Conference playoffs. While that makes for a battle tested representative from the West, it also makes for a tired or injured representative that has survived a war of attrition. Something to watch for as we move on.

9. Scott Brooks needs to be considered for Coach of the Year.

Coach of the Year is usually given to the coach whose team unexpectedly excels despite what the prognosticators predicted in the preseason. If that is the case, then this award will come down to a battle between Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns or Terry Stotts of the Portland Trailblazers. When Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have only combined for 3 COY awards between them, you know this is a fresh-face award. And that does not bode well for Brooks’ candidacy.

brooks jackson thunder

But consider this, the Thunder are tied for the 3rd best record in the league, while missing a top-10 player for about half the season so far. When Russell Westbrook was in the line-up, the Thunder had the best record in the league during that stretch. And the Thunder have had to incorporate new young players into the rotation that did not garner heavy minutes last season. The balance and willingness to adapt that Brooks has shown throughout the season makes this his best coaching job to date, and one that I think garners consideration for COY.

8. Serge Ibaka has been the glue that has held this team together.

Through all the changes that have occurred this season, the only constant has been Serge Ibaka. From Westbrook to Reggie Jackson to the young bench’s emergence to Kevin Durant’s dominance, the one factor that usually determines a Thunder victory is how well Ibaka plays. In games in which he has a double double, the Thunder are 14-3. In games where Ibaka scores 16 or more, the Thunder are 16-2.  It’s as simple as this: if Ibaka plays well, the Thunder usually win. And he’s been playing a lot more consistently this season. He’s gotten smarter defensively and is concentrating more on positioning than on chasing every shots that comes into the lane. His play has been solid enough this season to garner a real look at him making the All-Star game.

7. Kendrick Perkins currently has more value to this team than Thabo Sefolosha.

For all the chastising that Kendrick Perkins receives from fans and media members alike, he still has value on this team. Is he probably the worst offensive center in the league (starting or not)? Yes. What takes longer to get off the ground: Kendrick Perkins or an 18 wheeler using a manual jack? Probably Perk. But the experience Perkins has as a post defender is invaluable when the opponent has a player like Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, or LaMarcus Aldridge. His knowledge of defensive principles in the post also helps the Thunder out. And, well, he’s a hell of a screen setter. Is he worth $8.7 million (and over $9 million next season)? Of course not, but from team hierarchy perspective, Perkins is the guard dog that patrols the Thunder’s house, on and off the court.

sefolosha perkins thunder

Thabo Sefolosha is the team’s main perimeter defender and the anointed “corner 3” guy. Over the past two seasons, that role has worked out great for Sefolosha. He shot over 40% from 3-point territory and was, without question, the best perimeter defender on the team. This season though, his 3-point shooting percentage is down to 31% and his role as a one-on-one defender has started to decline. Also, the drafting of Andre Roberson and the emergence of Jeremy Lamb have given the Thunder options if Sefolosha leaves via free agency this offseason.

6. The team made the right choice in sticking with Jeremy Lamb. 

Heading into the last offseason, the Thunder’s biggest trade asset was guard Jeremy Lamb. Along with the No. 12 pick, the Thunder could have packaged their young asset to move up in the draft. Instead they kept their pick and chose to stay with Lamb. It has proven to be a wise choice. Lamb has provided valuable perimeter shooting to a team severely lacking it, and has been a great glue guy, providing whatever needs to be provided to win.

5. Steven Adams was made to play for this team.

When the Thunder drafted Adams, I envisioned a year full of trips down I-44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa for the big man. Instead, Adams is probably in the second tier of rookies vying for Rookie of the Year. He brute physicality and footwork have helped him adjust to the pro game a lot quicker than most expected. He has shown flashes of an offensive game (hook shots, a developing mid-range jumper) and leads the league in PEFG (players ejected from game).

steven adams thunder vince carter

He is developing in this teams’ version of Bill Laimbeer or Dennis Rodman. A guy that who raises the ire of other players, but who also remains as cool as the other side of the pillow. He starting to develop a reputation around the league as a dirty player, but, really, he just plays strong. And this generation of player does not like getting physical.

4. When completely healthy, the Thunder are the deepest team in the league. 

The Thunder are constructed to have a little bit of everything. If you need big men, the Thunder can trot out 4 or 5 that get regular minutes. If you need veteran savvy, the Thunder can give you Nick Collison or Derek Fisher regularly. If you need scoring off the bench, I present to you Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. If you need a jack of all trades, here’s Perry Jones. And that’s without even getting into Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook. The Thunder are loaded when the entire team is available. When the starters sit, the bench has the ability to either chip away at deficits or blow the game wide open. If you want small ball, the team can put out 2 or 3 different combinations that are all very effective.

The point of the James Harden trade was to not only have financial flexibility, but also roster flexibility. Instead of having just one combo guard off the bench, you now have a combo guard, a shooting guard, and a developing big man. More parts for less money is always a win in any business.

3. Point guard is the hardest position to learn in basketball.

Combo guards sometimes have the most difficult job in basketball. A pure point guard has to worry about distributing first, then scoring. But a combo guard has to read the situation and determine whether he should pass or shoot. Sounds like the same situation, but there are two totally different mentalities involved. We saw that with Russell Westbrook, who had all the tools to be a combo guard, but had to neuter that a bit to learn how to be a starting point guard in this league.

jackson thunder

Reggie Jackson is learning how to make that transition. Even though he’s in his 3rd season, this is basically his 2nd season of playing. He was thrown into the fire his rookie season with Eric Maynor’s injury, but got sent back to the bench once the team signed Derek Fisher. In his 2nd season, he shuffled between the end of the bench and Tulsa for the first half of the season before finally being given the reins to the bench in the second half of last season. With the Westbrook injury, Jackson has had to commandeer the first team and has done a commendable job. Is he making mistakes? Yes. But he’s also showing signs of “getting it” and will be a valuable asset for the team moving forward.

2. Russell Westbrook’s health is the single most important factor in the Thunder contending for a championship.

That statement is self-explanatory. I don’t care what Russell Westbrook has to do to stay healthy for the remainder of the season. If he has to take every 3rd game off, let’s do it. If he has to be on the “Tim Duncan/Dwayne Wade” rest regiment, I’m down.  Whatever it takes to get this man healthy and ready for the playoffs. Because if he misses any time in the playoffs, the chances of the Thunder advancing drops dramatically.

Russell Westbrook

The team is able to tread water during the regular season because there a ton of factors that don’t exist in the playoffs. The scouting reports are shorter for regular season games. The travel is more daunting during the regular season, which leads to fatigue. But during the playoffs, when a team has days to scout their opponent and there are no back to backs, this is where the team will need Westbrook. Get well Russ!

1. If it wasn’t for the championship resumè, Durant would be considered the best player in the game. 

It’s funny how the narrative in a 41-game stretch can completely change. When the season started, everyone was wondering whether Paul George would overtake Durant for the No.2 spot in the imaginary player ranking that many media members have. Then, when Lebron James came out the gates shooting over 60% from the field, the MVP award was basically handed to him by most media members. But Durant just kept plugging along, doing what he does. Efficient, ruthless, and calculated.

Then when Westbrook went down again after Christmas, many thought the momentum that the Thunder had built up to that point would come crashing down. Rewind back to last season when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. Durant knew he needed to step up, and he did. But, I don’t think he trusted his teammates enough to allow them to do the heavy-lifting. Instead of focusing only on scoring, Durant instead became the de facto point guard, the best rebounder, and the best perimeter defender. In the end, that began to affect his stamina, and he found himself completely winded by the middle of the 4th quarter.

This season, though, Durant has trusted his teammates more and the results have spoken for themselves. Ibaka has started to become an extremely reliable mid-range release valve, and a great partner in the pick and roll. The team is rebounding and defending as a whole better. The bench offers more roster flexibility. And the offense, while still stagnant at times, has enough wrinkles to quickly get out of funks.

durant thunder batum trailblazers

But in the end, it’s all about Durant. And his play in January (37 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.9 apg on 52/39/88 splits) has been one for the ages. While MVP’s are not won in January, Durant is just now learning how to dominate, while not interfering in the game plan. He is doing this all within the flow of the game. It’s scary for the league when Durant is probably a season or two away from reaching his prime.

There’s forty more games to go. The Thunder defeated the Portland Trailblazers in raucous fashion to begin their next 41. The season is still a long ways from being over and many things can happen during that time. But, I, for one, am extremely impressed by what I’m witnessing from this team and what the future holds. Here’s to health and 16 more victories after the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Charlotte Bobcats preview (Game 29 of 82)

westbrook kidd gilchrist thunder bobcats

  • When: Friday, 27 December 2013 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, NC

Coming off of a rousing performance in Madison Square Garden on Christmas, the Oklahoma City Thunder look to keep things going as they travel to Charlotte to take on the Bobcats. In that Knicks games, Russell Westbrook secured a triple double by the middle of the third quarter and Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka combined for 53 points on 20/30 shooting. The bench played spectacularly and kept their foot on the pedal for all of the 4th quarter. Of course, the Thunder were aided by the fact that Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton were out because of injury.

The Thunder won the season series against the Bobcats last season 2-0. The most memorable of those games was the one played in Oklahoma City, where Charlotte came into the game with a 7-5 record and a little bit of a puffed up chest. The Thunder proceeded to take a 40 point lead into halftime and tacked on 5 more points by the end of the game. The loss was so severe that Charlotte didn’t win another game for over a month. The Thunder have won 5 straight meetings between the two teams encompassing the last 3 seasons.

The Opponent

zeller tolliver walker henderson jefferson bobcats

In the midst of all the carnage that is the Eastern Conference, it’s good to know that one of the teams with a losing record is actually improving from last season. Charlotte didn’t win their 14th game last season until March 12th, but already stand at 14-15 this season. The defense is much improved under new head coach Steve Clifford, and the team is finding ways to win close games. They’re the 2nd worst scoring team in the league, at 92.4 points per game, but combat that by being the 3rd best at opponent’s points per game, at 93.6. The Bobcats’ offense is initiated, and usually, finished by PG Kemba Walker. Joining him in the back court is Gerald Henderson, who is quietly one of the better 2-way guards in the Eastern Conference. Up front, free agent acquisition Al Jefferson has paid dividends, almost averaging a double double with averages of 16.7 points and 9.6 rebounds. Their bench depth has been decimated by injuries lately, with Jeff Taylor going down with an Achilles tear and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still recovering from a broken hand.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Charlotte Bobcats

  • PG – Kemba Walker
  • SG – Gerald Henderson
  • SF – Anthony Tolliver
  • PF – Josh McRoberts
  • C – Al Jefferson

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

EDIT: Russell Westbrook had arthroscopic knee surgery and will be out for 6-8 weeks.

3 Keys to the Game

1. Force the issue – The Bobcats have depth issues due to injuries. Drive the ball inside and try to force fouls. The more fouls you force, the more the chances that someone like Jeff Adrien or Jannero Pargo will have to minutes.

2. Perimeter defense – Al Jefferson will do what he does. The key will be not completely collapsing on him and giving streak shooters like Walker and Ben Gordon the opportunity to heat up.

durant ibaka thunder

3. Small ball – We usually react to teams and play small ball in response to their line-up. I think this would be a good game to force the Bobcats to play small ball. A line-up where Jefferson and McRoberts would have to keep up with Ibaka and Durant would be wonderful for transition opportunities.

Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks preview (Game 28 of 82)

durant shumpert knicks thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 25 December 2013 at 1:30 PM CST
  • Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

One of the major storylines heading into this season was the Battle of New York. Who would take the Big Apple: the New York Knicks or the Brooklyn Nets. While there may still be a competition between the two teams, the two teams have woefully underachieved to the point where their meetings are only of regional importance, not national importance. The good news for both teams is that the Eastern Conference is so bad that they are still in the thick of things as far as playoff seeding goes.

This Christmas match up is the first meeting of the season between the two teams. The teams split the season series last season as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony battled for the scoring championship. Anthony ended up winning the scoring title 28.7 ppg to Durant’s 28.1 ppg.

The Opponent

iman-shumpert-knicks-carmelo-anthony-tyson-chandler

The Knicks come into the game with a 9-18 record, which surprisingly finds them only 2 games out of the 8th seed. The Knicks came into this season with high expectations, but the season started in turmoil after JR Smith was suspended for the first 5 games due to a substance abuse violation and Tyson Chandler came down with a broken leg a week into the season. Add to that the unknown that is Amare Stoudemire’s health and the seemingly frayed relationship between the team and SG Iman Shumpert, and you have a recipe for chaos…which has ensued. The Knicks, thought to be one of the more offensively minded teams with Anthony, Smith, and Raymond Felton at the helm, find themselves scoring only 95 ppg, good for 25th in the league. Surprisingly, they are one of the better defensive teams in the league, in terms of opponent’s ppg at 97.9 ppg, good for 8th in the league.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

New York Knicks

  • PG – Beno Udrih
  • SG – J.R. Smith
  • SF – Iman Shumpert
  • PF – Carmelo Anthony
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – The Knicks are currently a jump shooting team that isn’t making their jump shots. That doesn’t mean that they don ‘t have gunners on their team that can’t catch fire on any given game. This will be key to the Thunder’s success in this game. Stay on the shooters and limit their opportunities at open looks.

westbrook smith thunder knicks

2. Bench play – With the Knicks bench being so decimated by injury, especially at the guard position, look for the Thunder to take advantage of this with Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Derek Fisher.

3. Wounded animal – Don’t discount the Knicks being at home and playing with a mentality of a wounded animal. Primetime game, MSG, prime Western Conference opponent. You can be sure the Knicks will be giving the Thunder their best shot. Hopefully, the Thunder remember the Toronto game and come out sharper for this one.

To all my readers – Thank you for your support and Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy your day with friends and family, and as always, THUNDER UP!!