Tag Archives: Kendrick Perkins

The Three That Will Never Be: The Legacies of Scott Brooks, Kendrick Perkins, and Derek Fisher

ibaka perkins durant fisher thunder

As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.

For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.

What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.

When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Head coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder talks with Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Thunder won 118-112. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).

He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season.  When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.

Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.

In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.

The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.

Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.

There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.

As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.

Sifting through the rubble: A Thunder trading deadline postscript

jackson perkins thunder

From the time I woke up on February 19th to about 1:30 PM CST, I was almost certain that a certain Brooklyn Nets 7-footer would be a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Speculation was abound that the Thunder and Nets had rekindled talks revolving around Brook Lopez, Kendrick Perkins, and Reggie Jackson. All the information leading up to about 12:30 PM CST was that it was basically a done deal and that the Nets were awaiting Oklahoma City’s approval. Then the chatter stopped.

Trades usually come at you one of two ways. The first way is like the trade in which the Thunder acquired Dion Waiters. It comes at you in an instant and you barely have time to react. The second way is like the Brook Lopez (non)trade. You hear the rumors and speculation leading up to the trade, and usually it gets done after that. But sometimes, the chatter stops prompting one of two thoughts: either the teams are working on the specifics of the deal or the deal has completely fallen through. In the case of Brook Lopez, it was the latter.

The rumors started that the Thunder were doing their due diligence and were looking at all their options. Around 1:45 PM CST, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Reggie Jackson had been traded to the Detroit Pistons. Apparently the Jackson move was the linchpin that was holding everything back in the league. Once Jackson was dealt, all hell broke loose. About 30 players were traded in a 10 minute span leading to the trading deadline. The trade deadline literally napalmed the entire league. And these weren’t end of the bench players. These were former All-Stars, talented players on rookie deals, a former Rookie of the Year, and game-changers. This trade deadline was definitely worth it.

When all the dust settled, four new players were slated to be in Thunder uniforms, while four others became former Thunder players. Here’s an overview of the two deals the Thunder made at the deadline.

Deal 1:

  • Oklahoma City received Enes Kanter and Steve Novak from Utah and DJ Augustin, Kyle Singer, and a 2019 2nd round pick from Detroit.
  • Utah received Kendrick Perkins, Grant Jerrett, the draft rights to Tibor Pleiss, and a 2017 lottery protected 1st round pick from Oklahoma City and a 2017 2nd round pick from Detroit.
  • Detroit received Reggie Jackson

The Jackson deal was actually a 3 team deal that also involved Kendrick Perkins and little used rookie forward Grant Jerrett. Jackson let his intentions be known at the end of last season and at training camp this season, that his main goal was to be a starter in the league. With Russell Westbrook in tow and Oklahoma City’s penchant for starting defensive minded, normal sized SG’s, the Thunder were never in a position to acquiesce to Jackson’s demands. As the trading deadline drew closer, Jackson’s agent, Aaron Mintz, asked the team to trade his client. From all the accounts, the locker room chemistry between Jackson and his teammates (specifically Kevin Durant and Westbrook) was reaching a boiling point of which there would be no returning from. The Thunder had to get a deal done and Detroit (and Utah) offered them the best deal in terms of known commodities.

dj augustin kyle singler pistons

I will say this. It was kind of hard to see Perkins go. On a team full of hares, Perkins was the tortoise. I know he was the bane of a lot of Thunder fans’ existences, but his effects on the team will be felt for years to come. He was the big brother on the team and he relished that role. When the younger players (to include Durant and Westbrook) had a bad day, they would usually turn to Perkins for advice. He was the protector of the inner sanctum. Only team members and a select few were allowed in their locker room (I’m looking at you, Joakim Noah). He made the team better defensively (don’t argue, just look up the stats), and toughened them up. Did he have his flaws? Of course. But he also personified the qualities that you and I take into our 9 to 5’s, and I for one, appreciated it.

Deal 2:

  • Oklahoma City received a protected 2016 2nd round pick from New Orleans.
  • New Orleans received Ish Smith, the draft rights to Latavious Williams, a 2015 protected 2nd round pick from Oklahoma City, and cash considerations.

The Thunder made this move to clear a roster spot for the incoming new players. The Thunder could have waived Smith, but his salary would have counted towards their final salary number of the team. With the team already being over the luxury tax, they didn’t want to add to the total amount they would have to pay to the league. Instead, New Orleans stepped in and took on Smith, who was subsequently waived.

When I look at the players the Thunder acquired, one word resonates in my mind: balance. This is the most balanced team the Thunder has ever yielded. You could argue that the 2011-12 team that made it to the NBA Finals was more balanced, but this team is more experienced. In the end, the Thunder lost a good player in Jackson and a team leader in Perkins, but got back so much more in depth and balance. The Thunder got back a true back-up point guard that can shoot, two sharp-shooters, and an offensively adept center that is only 22 years of age. In short, the Thunder got better.

Trade Winds – Oklahoma City and trade rumors

perkins jackson thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder have never been known to be big players at the trade deadline. In their 6 previous seasons in OKC, the Thunder rescinded one blockbuster deal (Tyson Chandler in 2009), used the pieces from the rescinded trade to salvage another one (Thabo Sefolosha in 2009), made another blockbuster deal in 2011 (Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson in 2011) and acquired Ronnie Brewer from the New York Knicks for a 2nd round pick in 2012. Talk about living dangerously with that last one!

But this season seems different. The Thunder were already a part of a January mini-blockbuster trade that involved 3 teams, 4 players, and a first round pick that netted the Thunder Dion Waiters. And the Thunder still have enough assets to make another deal or two before Thursday’s trade deadline.

First off, what assets do the Thunder have?

  • The Untouchables – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Mitch McGary, Nick Collison, Anthony Morrow, and Dion Waiters.
  • Can be had for the right price – Reggie Jackson ($2.2 M) and Kendrick Perkins ($9.4 M)
  • Have at it, Philly – Jeremy Lamb ($2.2 M), Perry Jones ($1.13 M), Ish Smith ($861 K), and Grant Jerrett ($816 K)
  • Filler – 2015 2nd round pick and the draft rights to Tibor Pleiss, Alex Abrines, Josh Huestis, and Semaj Christon.

What do the Thunder need?

Outside shooting – The Thunder’s 3-point shooting percentage is a paltry 32.5%, good for 25th in the league. That percentage also ranks the lowest (by about 4 spots) of any teams that is currently slated in a playoff spot (to include New Orleans). The Thunder make about 7.4 3-pointers per game, which is tied for 15th in the league and ranks them ahead of only New Orleans and Memphis for Western Conference teams that in the playoff race. If that shooter can also be a plus on the defensive end, then that’s even better.

Interior scoring – The Thunder have never had a bona fide interior scorer. Someone they can dump the ball off to in the paint and know there’s a high percentage an easy shot will come out of it. The Thunder are tied with 2 other teams for 17th in the league in Point Per Shot (pps). What this means is that the Thunder are in the lower half of the league in getting easy baskets.

Luxury tax relief – The Waiters trade pushed the Thunder about $2.2 million dollars over the luxury tax line. Luckily, the Thunder have never been over the tax line and are in no risk of having to pay any repeater tax. The Thunder may be willing to remain above the tax line this season, or they could just as easily went to get back under the tax line before the deadline is over with.

5 Possible Deals the Thunder may make (All trades have been fact-checked with ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine)

1. Thunder gets Brook Lopez / Brooklyn gets Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb, and Grant Jerrett 

lopez perkins nets thunder

This deal was already hinted at about three weeks ago. The Thunder appeared ready to make the deal, but the Nets hesitated, probably wanting to see if they could get a better deal. The Thunder get their interior presence (albeit an injury prone one with a player option for $16.7 million next season). Brooklyn gets what they are desperately coveting: luxury tax relief and an acceleration to rebuilding. The Nets are looking for a combination of expiring contracts, young players, and picks. But no one in the league is really looking to give up financial flexibility for a big man that is injury prone and due to make that much money next season.

2. Thunder gets Enes Kanter and Jeremy Evans / Utah gets Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb, 2015 2nd round pick

If the Thunder are looking for an offensive big man, Kanter may be a cheaper option than Brook Lopez. In addition, the Thunder get some luxury tax relief in the process. Utah gets a veteran big man with an expiring contract to mentor Gobert and Favors and a young wing that needs playing time to blossom.

3. Thunder gets one of either Arron Afflalo/Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, and Memphis’ 2015 first round pick / Denver gets Kendrick Perkins, Reggie Jackson, and Jeremy Lamb

With Denver looking to build for the future, everyone on the team, save for Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris is likely on the table. OKC would love to get a 2-way wing that can either come off the bench, or immediately start if necessary. The Thunder have already experienced what happens in the playoffs when teams lay off their offensively challenged players and pack the paint. A long wing with the ability to knock down a jumper would be a great commodity to have moving forward. Denver would probably love to add Jackson to their young core. Jackson has been through playoff battles and appears eager to lead his own team.

4. Thunder gets Ian Mahimi and George Hill / Indiana gets Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson

The Thunder get a more defensive minded back-up point guard with playoff experience that has knocked down big shots in the past. In addition they get a big that can give you something on the offensive end of the floor. Indiana gets a point guard that can, not only create for himself, but also create for others. In addition, they get a big with a $9 million dollar expiring contract.

5. Thunder gets under the luxury tax line, a Traded Player Exception, and a heavily protected 2nd rounder / Philadelphia gets any of Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones or Kendrick Perkins

The luxury tax. Why pay if you don’t have to? Philadelphia is about $13 million dollars under the the salary cap floor. If they want to avoid pay it, they may be willing to take on a player or two.

Final option (and highly likely):

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Oklahoma City Thunder

Stay put. Yeah, its an extremely boring option. But the Thunder, as currently constructed, are a championship contending team. Take away the injuries to the key players, and you have a team that would likely be in the thick of the Western Conference elite. They have a good mix of offense and defense, and only now appear to be putting it all together. Plus, Mitch McGary may be offensive big man the Thunder have been looking for. He’ll have his missteps in this his rookie season. But the kid oozes potential and brings a completely different dynamic to the team. It’ll be a crazy 24-48 hours from here on out. It could be a roller coaster or it could be a drive to the local Wal-Mart. Just make sure you buckle up.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors preview (Game 26 of 82)

perkins thunder

  • When: Thursday, 18 December 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA

Most games in the regular season are not must-wins. Teams battling for the 8th spot in their respective conferences at the end of the season face must-win games. Teams on the brink of elimination in the playoffs face must-win games. But games in December can rarely be labeled must-win games. Even if the Thunder lose tonight, they are still well on pace to get into the playoffs comfortably. So while it isn’t a must-win game, it definitely is a “want to”-win game. After starting the season off in shambles due to injuries, it sure would be nice to send a message to the rest of the league that we are back.

This is the second of four meetings between the Thunder and Golden State Warriors. The under-manned Thunder played the Warriors valiantly in their first meeting, losing 91-86. That is the lowest point total the Warriors have been held to all season.

The Opponent

curry thompson green warriors

The Golden State Warriors currently sit perched atop of the rest of the league with a 21-3 record. After winning 16 in a row, the Warriors lost their last game to the Memphis Grizzlies in Memphis. First year head coach Steve Kerr has jumped out to the best 24 game start to begin a coach career in league history. The Warriors rank in the top 10 in most major statistical categories. Their defense is predicated on blowing up pick and rolls and forcing you to take mid-range shots early in the shot clock. On offense, the shooting of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (or the fear of them shooting) creates a ton of space for them to do their work and for others to get open. The Splash Brothers are currently averaging 45.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 10.9 assists, and 3.2 steals per game on 46.6/41.0/89.5% shooting splits combined. This backcourt is highly efficient and each player is capable of exploding for 35+ points on any given night. Because of David Lee’s injury and Andre Iguadola’s move to the bench, Kerr has been going with Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green at the forward spots. Barnes plays more of the small forward role, while Green has been a  terror as an undersized stretch-4. Both players are shooting over 35% from deep this season. Up front, Festus Ezeli mans the middle in place of the injured Andrew Bogut. Off the bench, the aforementioned Iguadola, Marreese Speights, and Shaun Livingston give the Warriors a veteran reserve bunch that will not lose them many games.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Golden State Warriors

  • PG – Steph Curry
  • SG – Klay Thompson
  • SF – Harrison Barnes
  • PF – Draymond Green
  • C – Festus Ezeli

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Transition Defense – There’s a reason why the Warriors are No. 1 in the league in pace: their fast breaks don’t have to go all the way to the rim. The Warriors are just as happy shooting up 30 footers while the defense is getting set back up as they are gliding in for lay-ups. It’ll be extremely important for the Thunder to get back on defense as quickly as possible to contest anything from Curry and Thompson.

2. Match-up Landmines – The first match-up problem I see is Ibaka vs. Green. It would almost be better for the Thunder to go small from the beginning with Ibaka as the 5 and Perry Jones getting minutes at forward. Another match-up nightmare is Kendrick Perkins vs. Speights. This manifested itself the last time these two teams played, as Speights went off for 28 points off the bench on an array of mid-range jumpers against the slower Perkins. Another match-up problem could be Reggie Jackson vs. Livingston. Livingston has made a career of taking small pg’s down on the block due to his height advantage.

westbrook thunder ezeli warriors

3. Sit back and enjoy – If you are a fan of basketball, these last two nights have been great. The Warriors/Grizzlies match-up on Tuesday was good and the triple-overtime thriller between the Grizzlies and Spurs last night was even better. But if you remember back to the first two games the Thunder and Warriors played last season, then you already have a blueprint as to how tonight might play out.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Sacramento Kings preview (Game 25 of 82)

durant thunder thompson kings

  • When: Tuesday, 16 December 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Sleep Train Arena, Sacramento, CA

The Oklahoma City Thunder are slowly climbing that playoff ladder. With their win against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday and the Suns’ last second loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, the Thunder found themselves half a game from the 8th spot, behind the New Orleans Pelicans. While injuries tripped up the Thunder at the beginning of the season, injuries seem to be tripping up some of the teams the Thunder are currently look to climb over. Goran Dragic missed the Suns’ last two games with a back injury. Anthony Davis missed the last game for the Pelicans with a bruised chest. And Demarcus Cousins has missed the last 9 games for the Kings with viral meningitis. The breaks other teams were catching when the Thunder were injured, are the same breaks the Thunder are now catching against other teams. Such is the beast known at the NBA regular season.

This is the second of four meeting between the Thunder and Kings. The Thunder won the first meeting 101-93 in Oklahoma City. In that game, Reggie Jackson scored 11 of his 22 points in the 4th quarter to help the Thunder hold off the Kings who made a furious charge in the 2nd half after being down by 13 at halftime.

The Opponent

gay mclemore collison kings

The Sacramento Kings currently sit at 11-13, which is the same record as the Thunder. After starting the season off 9-5, the Kings have gone on to drop 8 of their last 10, culminating in the firing of head coach Michael Malone. From all reports, the Kings front office and the coach disagreed on a number of player personnel issues and the losing streak was just a means to an end for the front office. The recent slide can be directly linked to star center DeMarcus Cousins being sidelined with viral meningitis. Without a presence in the middle, defenses have been able to defend the Kings’ perimeter players one on one and not allow them to get open shots. Leading the Kings’ attack is Darren Collison, who is averaging 16 points and 6.3 assists per game. While never one to be mistaken with the league’s elite point guards, Collison can hold his own with his quickness and ability to get into the lane. On the perimeter, Ben McLemore and Rudy Gay may not be the most efficient bunch, but if they get going, they can take over games from the perimeter. Up front, the loss of  Cousins exposes the lack of depth the Kings have on the interior. Which is surprising considering half their roster is power forwards. Off the bench, Ray McCallum, Ramon Sessions, Carl Landry, Reggie Evans, and Nik Stauskas provide the Kings with some depth, especially in the back court. Omri Casspi and the aforementioned Cousins will be out tonight.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Sacramento Kings

  • PG – Darren Collison
  • SG – Ben McLemore
  • SF – Rudy Gay
  • PF – Jason Thompson
  • C – Ryan Hollins

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Trap-Game Potential – Having just played the No. 8 team (at the time) in the Western Conference standings and possibly looking ahead to a prime-time match-up with the Golden State Warriors, this game has high trap game potential. Add to that the fact the Kings are slumping, missing their best player, playing for a new head coach, and playing at home on national TV, and you have the perfect formula for a let down on the Thunder’s part.

2. Rebounding – There has been a lot of correlation lately between the Thunder out-rebounding their opponents and winning games comfortably. The Kings have a stable of power forwards that can grab rebounds by the bunches. If a Thunder allow them to get too comfortable on the interior, then the Kings will eventually take advantage of their 2nd chance opportunities.

perkins collison thunder thompson kings

3. Rudy Gay/Kendrick Perkins – There are a couple givens in life: Death, taxes, and the “Kendrick Perkins offensive foul due to a hard screen on Rudy Gay” play. It’s coming. Bank on it.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 21 of 82)

perkins morrow thunder mayo bucks

  • When: Tuesday, 09 December 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

It’s been 4 out of 5 games. Against some of the worst teams in the league. But they have been victories, and they have been needed. The Thunder can’t be picky from here on out about how or against whom they get their wins. They just have to get them…and by the bunches, if possible. Their past game and this game are bit of a redemption tour for the Thunder. And that’s basically what the rest of this season is going to be. The necessity of making up for the lost first month of the season will be the theme of the season. Fortunately, for the first time all season, the Thunder have been healthy for some games now, and appear to be hitting their stride.

This is the 2nd meeting of the season between these two teams. In the first game, the Bucks used a strong second quarter to wrestle the game from the Thunder, and kept them at bay in the 2nd half to win 85-78.

The Opponent

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Minnesota Timberwolves

The Bucks come into this game with a surprising 11-11 record, but have lost 4 out of their last 5 games. They have feasted on the weak teams in the league, to include Oklahoma City when they were the walking wounded. Against teams with a record of .500 or higher, Milwaukee is only 1-8 this season. They are middle of the road in most statistical categories, and are just now learning how to compete in the league. Point guard Brandon Knight seems to be coming into his own, after struggling to find his way in Detroit and in his first season with Milwaukee last year. He leads the team in points (17.6), assists (5.8), and steals (1.5), and has been surprisingly efficient. On the wings, OJ Mayo and Giannis Antetokounmpo provide a contrast of styles that can make them difficult to defend. Mayo is the perimeter player who can be streaky at times, while Antetokounmpo is the genetic freak that is just now learning how to use his physical tools. Rookie Jabari Parker has seen his averages steadily improve as the season has progressed. Up front, Larry Sanders has kept himself out of trouble and is giving the Bucks what they expected of him, which is defense and rebounding. The Bucks have one of the more deeper benches in the league, and it is not uncommon for them to regularly go 11 or 12 deep in a game. It features a mix of young and old, with veterans like Jerryd Bayless, Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova, and Zaza Pachulia, and young players like Khris Middleton and Kendall Marshall all getting significant playing time.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Milwaukee Bucks

  • PG – Brandon Knight
  • SG – OJ Mayo
  • SF – Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • PF – Jabari Parker
  • C – Larry Sanders

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

Match-ups To Watch

1. Kevin Durant vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Freak vs. Freak. If you were to go into some Cold War-aged, unethical, secluded laboratory located somewhere in a bunker east of the Balkans that allowed experimentation on humans and were told to create the perfect basketball player, you’d probably create something along the lines of Durant and Antetokounmpo (but with a little bit more muscle mass, of course). Two 6’10-ish guys that can move gracefully and handle the ball well enough to be considered guards.

durant thunder antetokounmpo bucks

2. Serge Ibaka vs. Jabari Parker – Parker is currently undersized for the position, but he is probably versatile enough to give Ibaka problems on the perimeter. While Ibaka may have the edge in the rebounding department, Parker’s ability to float around the perimeter will likely negate Ibaka’s best strength, which is as a rim protector.

3. Kendrick Perkins vs. Zaza Pachulia – Silver back vs. Gümüs geri (silver back in Georgian). Perkins has been pretty successful in his transition to the bench. We’ll see how he handles the king of the back-up bigs in Pachulia.

3 Keys to the Game

1. Rebounding – The Bucks are 3rd in the league in terms of offensive boards (11.5/game), while at the same time, giving up about the same amount of offensive boards away (11.4/game). Which ever team puts their stamp on the board, will likely win this game.

pachulia bucks adams thunder

2. Bench – When the Bucks and Thunder first met, Milwaukee sported one of the best scoring benches in the league. And it showed as the Bucks bench outscored the Thunder bench 53-22 in the first meeting. Since then, though, Mayo and Antetokounmpo have moved into the starting line-up and Ilyasova and John Henson are both out with injuries. Conversely, the Thunder now sport a fully healthy team. That, combined with Jeremy Lamb’s recent resurgence, likely means the Thunder will take advantage of their off the bench.

3. Durant and Westbrook – This is their first game in Oklahoma City as a healthy duo. Hopefully, a little home cooking will be the catalyst the team needs to get into the right groove.

The Thunder through the first month of the season: 10 Thoughts

ibaka jones jackson thunder

To call this season eventful would be an understatement. The Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at 3-10, a far cry from the record many predicted the Thunder would have at this point before the season started. But those predictions are usually predicated on the belief that injuries won’t be a factor. Well, injuries have been a huge factor for the Thunder. Here are 10 thoughts from the first two weeks of the season.

1. Injuries stink!

It started with a small blurb, “Mitch McGary’s foot will be re-evaluated following the (Denver) game.” This was right after the Thunder’s first preseason game. A game in which McGary looked like the second coming of Bill Laimbeer. The injury occurred late in the game, but McGary stayed in the game until the final buzzer. But alas, McGary ended up with a broken foot and was reported to be out for 6-8 weeks. Then, after the second preseason game, Kevin Durant went to the training staff to complain about foot pain. It was revealed that he had suffered a Jones fracture and would need surgery. His recovery was slated to take 6-8 weeks also. Next up was Anthony Morrow, who was injured in practice two weeks before the start of the season. He recovery period was said to be between 4-6 weeks. Then 2 days before the start of the season, Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) both got injured in the final home practice of the preseason.

The Thunder started the season with 8 healthy bodies. Then in the second game of the season, Russell Westbrook missed a shot, went up for a rebound, and came down looking at his hand. He accidentally slammed is hand against Kendrick Perkins’ granite elbow and ended up with a broken bone in his hand that required surgery. His recovery period is said to be between 4-6 weeks. Down to 7 healthy bodies. Reggie Jackson came back for the 4th game of the season, but in that game, Andre Roberson went down with a sprained foot. Down to 6 healthy bodies. In the 5th game of the season, the Thunder got Lamb back, but lost Perry Jones due to a knee contusion. One step forward, one step back. Luckily, the Thunder haven’t suffered anymore injuries since then. The cavalry is due to come back in the next few weeks, with the hope being that the patchwork Thunder can stay afloat long enough for the team to dig out of the injury-riddled hole it’s gotten itself into.

To get a full grasp of the current injury situation, Thunder players have already missed 80 games due to injury through 13 games. Thunder players missed 83 games due to injury all of last season.

durant westbrook roberson thunder injuries

I’ve never seen an injury spell like this, but it does kind of remind me of the 2nd season the Hornets were in town. In that season, the Hornets were predicted to be on the verge of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They had a young, up-and-coming duo in Chris Paul and David West, a young defensive big man in Tyson Chandler, and the catch of the offseason in Peja Stojakovic. The season got off to a great start as the Hornets opened up 8-3 out of the gate. But then came the injuries. Top reserve guard Bobby Jackson missed 26 games due to a cracked rib, West got injured in the 8th game of the season with an elbow issue that required surgery and missed 30 games, Stojakovic had back surgery after the 13th game of the season and missed the rest of the year, and Paul severely sprained his ankle in the 27th game of the season and missed the next 17 games. The Hornets still battled throughout the season, but the injuries proved to be too much and they were eliminated from the playoff hunt in the final month of the season. Here’s hoping the Thunder fare a little bit better.

2. The emergence of Reggie Jackson as a featured player

This could simultaneously be the best and worst thing for the Thunder in their future negotiations with Jackson. It’s great because the Thunder have a third player they can lean on if Durant and Westbrook either miss time or are being heavily keyed on by the opposing defense. And with this injury bug, they’ve definitely needed Jackson to step up. But it’s bad because, with every good game Jackson has and with every game he takes over in the 4th quarter, it’s just a little bit more added to his asking price. Through his first 6 games of the season, Jackson is averaging 22.8 points, 7.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 0.7 steals on 43% shooting from the field. Removing sample size from the equation, those numbers look very  Westbrookian. But like everything else in the NBA, once opposing defenses get at least 5 games worth of film on you, they can start to scheme against your strengths.

In the last 4 games, opposing teams have begun to focus their defensive energy on Jackson. They either blitz him with an additional defender when he’s 23 feet from the basket or they shadow him with a big man as he dribbles on the perimeter. In those 4 games, Jackson is averaging 15.3 points, 8 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game. Those are still good number, but his shooting percentage in those 4 games has dropped to 34.4% overall and 20% from 3-point territory. Without too many consistent options on the offensive side of the ball, Jackson is getting a glimpse of what life could like on his own team.

The dirty little secret with the Thunder is that with Westbrook and Durant on the floor, their exorbitant usage percentages tend to mask the full talents of their 3rd and 4th best players. James Harden was never given the opportunity to fully show his array of skills throughout his time with the Thunder. Yes, he played well enough to win the 6th Man of the Year award, but it wasn’t until he was fully unleashed while on the Rockets that he proved he was, arguably, the best 2-guard in the game. While Jackson will likely never be in the discussion for best point guard in the game, he definitely has the skill set to be considered in that second to third tier of point guards outside of Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steph Curry, and Westbrook.

3. The Veteran Presence of Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison

If I’m a young player in the NBA and I know that I’m likely headed down the career path of being a role player/specialist, then I would be attaching myself to the hip pockets of any of these two guys. In the midst of all this chaos, Collison and Perkins have been bastions of stability, with surprising flashes of necessary greatness. Perkins could have come into this season moping and complaining because of his demotion to the bench. Instead, he’s approached this season with an almost youthful zeal, and he’s probably put together the best 9 games of his Thunder career. In the Thunder’s first win of the season against Denver, Perkins (after scoring 17 points, by the way) echoed the sentiments of the coaching staff by saying that the Thunder “were all in this boat, together.” These are the intangibles that can’t be measured by a statistician. For the most part, Perkins’ stat do not merit his $9.4 million dollar salary. But as a locker room leader, its times like this where Perkins earns every penny he receives in that pay period.

perkins collison thunder

Collison’s play for the past season and a half would lead most to believe that he was on the last leg of his career. The nagging injuries were starting to mount and his effectiveness on the court was starting to diminish. But the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” fell on deaf ears when it came to Collison. Over the offseason, Collison worked on refining his outside shot. There were glimpses of it last season, but this year, Collison has taken it to another level. He has made more 3-point FG’s in the first 13 games of the season (11), than he has in the first 10 years of his career (5). While this may be some sort of statistical anomaly, it may also be the renaissance that can extend Collison’s effectiveness a couple more seasons.

4. Serge Ibaka: The Strangest 3 and D guy in the League

In the 7 seasons the Thunder have been in Oklahoma City, they’ve had a number of 3-point specialists on the team. From Daequan Cook to Kevin Martin to Anthony Morrow, the team is always in search of players that will help spread the floor and provide Durant and Westbrook space to operate. The floor spacer the team has been looking for may have been on the team all along. Serge Ibaka had shown signs of being an effective 3-point shooter in the past couple seasons. In the last 2 seasons, Ibaka has shot 43-117 from 3-point territory, good for 36.8%. This season, through the first 13 games, Ibaka is 23-59 (39%) from deep on 4.5 3-point attempts per game. He has already matched his total of made 3-point FG’s from last season. Some of that is out of necessity due to the team needing to find offense in its current situation. But, I also think this may be by design. Can you imagine Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson operating in a small ball line-up where Ibaka takes the center out towards the 3-point line? I would surmise it would be almost unfair.

5. The Development of Perry Jones

More than any other sport, athleticism is of extreme importance to basketball. The fluid nature of the game, the constant movement, the jumping, the slashing, the running. It’s almost like a fast paced ballet. The more athletic the player, the more of a leg up they have in the league. Is every athletic player destined for greatness? Of course not. But athleticism can be a major tool to have in an NBA career. For two years now, we’ve heard from different members of the Thunder organization marveling about Jones’ athletic ability. Heaping the accolades that he is the most athletic player on an extremely athletic team. But on the court, he could never seem to put it all together. You saw the flashes of athletic brilliance, but the motor and the want to be great seemed to be missing. What you got was a player that was seemingly content with being a “utility defender” and a spot-up 3-point shooter.

perry jones thunder

With necessity, though, comes action. When Westbrook went down in the first half of the 2nd game of the season, the Thunder were left without a consistent playmaker. Sebastian Telfair, a player that wasn’t even in the league last season, was tasked with setting up the offense. But who would he pass it to? Enter Perry Jones. With the vacuum created by the absence of Durant, Jackson, and Westbrook, Jones stepped up and averaged 22.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists on 52% shooting from the field in the 3 games in which he played more than 34 minutes. Even though it was only a 3 game spurt, the experience Jones got in learning how to use his tools, may be key to the Thunder’s future success.

6. The Fragility of Jeremy Lamb’s Mental State

The first two games after Lamb came from injury: 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists per game on 46.4% FG shooting and 33.3% from 3-point territory.

The next two games from Lamb: 5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2 assists per game on 17.4% FG shooting and 0-7 from 3-point territory.

So, what was the difference between these two splits? The easy answer is that the first two games were at home and the next two were on the road. But I think the real cause goes deeper than that. Last season, Lamb’s home/road splits were nearly identical. Consistency, based on venue, was never an issue with Lamb. So, then, what was the major difference between the first two games and the next two games?

My hypothesis is that Lamb performs better when there is no competitive pressure on him from an internal source. In essence, when he is allowed to play carefree without anybody waiting in the wing to take his minutes, he performs wonderfully. But as soon as there is competitive pressure from a teammate for minutes, Lamb starts to press and his performance suffers. In the first two games that Lamb played, Anthony Morrow was out with a knee injury. But as soon as Morrow was activated, Lamb’s numbers suffered. A similar scenario happened last season when the Thunder signed Caron Butler in late February. Lamb’s performance, which had been trending downward in the month of February, completely bottomed out after Butler was signed and he lost his spot in the rotation.

Since his first 4 games of the seasons, it appears that Lamb’s inconsistencies have a lot to do with home/road splits this season. At home, Lamb averages 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on 50% shooting from the field and 40% from 3. On the road, Lamb’s averages drop to 9.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 25.6% shooting from the first and 27.8% from 3.

7. The Importance of the 15th Man – Lance Thomas 

Every year, the Thunder brings in about 3-4 hopefuls to training camp to fill out their preseason roster. Those players are usually cut by the time the season starts and some even become part of the Thunder’s D-League team. The Thunder like to head into the season with an empty roster spot in case they need to facilitate a trade or if they need to sign someone later in the season. But this season, with all the injuries, the Thunder chose to sign one of their training camp hopefuls. Lance Thomas beat out Talib Zanna, Richard Solomon, and Michael Jenkins to secure the coveted 15th spot on the team.

Thunder v Raptors

A 15th man is usually a player that goes hard in practice, and then cheers from the sidelines in a nicely tailored suit as an inactive player. If the 15th man is getting playing time, then a couple of scenarios are at play: either several players on the roster are injured, a recent trade has trimmed the roster by at least 2 players, or some players are sitting out for rest. To us fans, the last guy off the bench is usually an afterthought. Someone we know is a part of the team, but also, someone whom we don’t necessarily want playing significant minutes.

But to a general manager, the 15th man could be the piece of gum that prevents the dam from breaking. If the 15th man has to play, then he better be someone that can give you something of significance. Well, not only has Lance Thomas had to play, but he’s also started 9 games for the Thunder. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and turnovers. There are games where he plays like the 15th man on our roster. But then there are games where his energy and hustle help the team significantly. In a perfect world, I would love for Thomas to remain as our 15th man. In the real world, though, he will probably be the sacrificial lamb sometime this season, for a trade or to make room for a late season veteran signing. Whatever happens, he has shown his mettle and will likely get another chance in this league because of it.

8. Sebastian Telfair – The Stabilizer

When Telfair signed with the team this offseason, the thought was that he would play the veteran third string point guard role that Royal Ivey and Kevin Ollie have filled in the past. A veteran that can still play some, but is more of a team-first guy. Instead, with all the injuries on the team, Telfair has had to fill the Derek Fisher role: point guard gunner off the bench.

Telfair career was thought to be on its last leg after he played in China last season. For the promise that he brought coming into the NBA, he has been a bit of a bust. But he has carved out a respectable 10 year career as a journeyman playing for 8 franchises, including a two time tour of duty in Minnesota. As a third string point guard making the league minimum, Telfair would’ve probably fared great on this team. The scary part would’ve been if he was needed to be pressed into action, and that fear came to fruition as the season started.

Surprisingly, though, Telfair has been a bit of a stabilizer on this team. Does he chuck too much at times? Yes. Does he turn it over more times than a veteran point guard should? Yes. Is he lacking defensively? Yes. But he’s a gamer when he’s in there and gives 100% effort. When Westbrook and Jackson were out for that game and a half in the beginning of the season, Telfair went out there and performed admirably against Chris Paul and Ty Lawson. His veteran presence has helped this team stay even-keeled throughout this arduous process.

9. Scott Brooks – Possible Coach of the Year candidate

The Coach of the Year award usually goes to one of two coaches: either the coach on the team that overachieves and makes the playoffs or the coach on the best team in the league when there isn’t a surprise overachieving team. But let’s say the Thunder navigate through this rough start and actually make it to the playoffs in the Western Conference. Wouldn’t Brooks be as deserving in leading this patchwork MASH unit to the playoffs as any other coach in the league? Brooks has had to adapt to the team he has. He’s muddied up the games in hopes that the Thunder can stick around long enough to make a run at the end of the game. He’s employed 2-3 zone defenses and strange line-ups where every player on the floor was over 6’9″ (Jones, Thomas, Perkins, Ibaka, and Collison). He’s become kind of a subdued mad scientist.

coach brooks thunder

Will voters remember this run when Westbrook and Durant have played 55-60 together at the end of the season? Probably not. But the biggest knock on Brooks has always been is inability to quickly adapt to situations, whether in game or in a small sample size of games. Now that he’s adapting on the fly, I wonder if this will continue when the reinforcements come back, or if Brooks will revert back to his old ways. Either way, if the Thunder are anywhere near the 6th seed in the West when the season closes, I think Brooks should be in consideration for COY.

10. Heart of a Champion!

Regardless of where the Thunder finish this season, the moxie they have exhibited in these first 13 games should be applauded. Have they looked horrible at times? Yes. But, at least they haven’t looked Philadelphia 76ers horrible. They’ve been in most games until the end and have shown no quit. It’s been a learning process and hopefully, the lessons learned early this season will help guide this team in May and June.

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

ultron

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

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

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

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

perry jones thunder

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

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

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

Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trailblazers preview (Game 1 of 82)

westbrook lillard thunder trailblazers

  • When: Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Moda Center, Portland, OR

If there was ever a time for the entire world to go into hibernation for, ohh, I don’t know, maybe 6 weeks, this would be the time. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be strolling into Portland on Wednesday to open the season with 9 healthy players. The Thunder usually have a 10-player rotation in the regular season. They have 9 capable bodies, currently. The injury bug has hit the Thunder hard this preseason with Kevin Durant and Mitch McGary each suffering a broken foot, Anthony Morrow suffering a sprained MCL, Grant Jerrett still recovering from offseason ankle surgery, and Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) each suffering injuries in the practice before the road trip. The only saving grace is that none of the injuries appear to be too serious.

The Thunder and Portland Trailblazers split the season series last year 2-2. The Northwest division rivals played four close games, with all of them being decided in the fourth quarter and by single digits. The average margin of victory in each of the contests was 5.5 points.

The Opponent

trailblazers lopez matthews lillard aldridge

The Trailblazer start  their season at home with visions of improving upon the season they had last year. Portland finished 54-28, good for 5th in their West. They defeated the Houston Rockets in 6 games in the first round and lost to the eventual champs in the second round in 5 games. Their entire core is back, and they picked up some veteran free agents for the bench. The only player missing who logged significant minutes last season is Mo Williams, who signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason. With such comfort and continuity, look for Portland to once again be one of the top offenses in the league. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews are one of the top two-way backcourts in the league. Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge are quickly becoming one of the best duos in the league. On the perimeter, small forward Nic Batum is their best defender and someone capable of knocking down open jumpers. In the middle, Robin Lopez does a great job of keeping possessions alive with his energy. The bench, which was a weakness last season, has been shored up by veteran free agents Steve Blake and Chris Kaman. CJ McCollum and Thomas Robinson will also play a big role off the bench.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Portland Trailblazers

  • PG – Damian Lillard
  • SG – Wesley Matthews
  • SF – Nic Batum
  • PF – LaMarcus Aldridge
  • C – Robin Lopez

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Foul Trouble – With only four warm bodies to come off the bench, the Thunder need to be very wary of their fouls. Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins both have a propensity for picking up quick fouls, and that would be disastrous against a team with skilled bigs like Portland. On the perimeter, the depth is even worse. Sebastian Telfair is the only guard available for the Thunder off the bench.

collison adams aldridge trailblazers thunder

2. Outside shooting – Oklahoma City’s top 3 perimeter shooters (Durant, Morrow, and Jackson) are out. The Trailblazers will be packing the paint, so making outside shots consistently will be necessary to win the game. All eyes will be on Russell Westbrook, which will leave Roberson, Jones, and Ibaka open from the perimeter. They have to knock down shots for the Thunder to even be in contention to win this game.

3. Westbrook – The great unknown. The fun unknown. We’ve always wondered what a team that solely featured Russell Westbrook would look like. Well, the Westbrook experience is taking off and we bought the Fast Pass. Let’s go!

10 BOLD Predictions for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014-15 season

russell westbrook thunder intro

1. Kevin Durant will play in only 48 games this year – I’m pegging December 9th as the game Durant returns from his broken foot. If recent history is a consistent teacher, then the Thunder will likely exercise the “Russell Westbrook rehabilitation” plan when Durant returns. He’ll likely be on minutes restriction and will probably sit one of the games of a back to back for the rest of the regular season.

  • Not so bold prediction – Durant will not lead the league in minutes this season.

2. The Thunder will finish as the 5th seed in the Western Conference – With injuries already stacking up, look for the Thunder to have a season similar to what the Memphis Grizzlies had last season. They struggled in the beginning of the season, going 7-6 in their first 13 games. Then Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury, and the Grizzlies went 10-13 in his absence. In total they went 17-19 in their first 36 games. After Gasol came back, the Grizzlies went 33-13 the rest of the way to grab the 8th seed at 50-32.

The Thunder have a little bit more depth (at this point, anyways) than the Grizzlies did last season, especially when you consider the Grizzlies also lost sharpshooter Quincy Pondexter in early December of that year. They should be able to weather the storm a bit better than the Grizzlies.

3. Reggie Jackson will shoot over 40% from 3-point territory this season – In the final two months of the regular season, Reggie Jackson shot 25-61 from deep. That’s good for nearly 41%. In the playoffs, where the defenses stiffen and the pressure mounts, Jackson shot 21-53 from deep, good for 39.6%. I see no reason why that would change heading into this upcoming season.

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City THunder: Game Two

4. Serge Ibaka will not win Defensive Player of the Year – The narrative is there. Last season, in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder were severely exposed in the first 2 games with Ibaka sitting out with a serious calf injury. And if Ibaka were to duplicate his defensive stats from the last 3 seasons, he would win DPOY in a land slide. But I don’t think Ibaka will play enough games to win.

Since the calf injury, he played sparingly for the Spanish National Team this summer due to a hamstring issue. Then he missed 5 preseason games due to a sore ankle. And when he did play this preseason, he got a bit of a scare with a knee contusion.  Much like Westbrook and Durant, I think the last 5 seasons are starting to take their toll on Ibaka. You can only throw a 6’10 muscular frame around  with reckless abandon for so long before you gotta pay the piper. And this is the season where Ibaka will finally pay the piper. Not necessarily with a catastrophic injury, but more with the general nicks and knacks that come with age. I see Ibaka missing 15-18 games this season, which will impact his chances of winning DPOY.

5. Steven Adams will record 18 double-doubles this season – Adams needs two things to be offensively successful this season: To be on the floor and Russell Westbrook. The point guard/center duo developed a bit of chemistry this preseason. Adams averaged 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds this preseason in nearly 26 minutes. If you can increase that to 30 minutes and feature him more offensively, then this could definitely happen, especially with Durant missing so much time. The one thing holding him back will likely be time on the floor. Adams’ propensity for fouling will likely curb some of his minutes in some games.

6. Russell Westbrook will end up Top 5 in points, assists, usage, turnovers, and steals – The Russell Westbrook we saw in last season’s playoffs will be on full display at the beginning of this season. With the Thunder’s emphasis on ball movement, look for Westbrook to be the catalyst for this style of play. Also, with defenses keying in specifically on Westbrook, look for Westbrook to rack up at least 3 triple doubles in the first 20 games of the season. When Durant returns, Westbrook’s scoring will probably dip, but his assists will probably increase.

  • Not so bold prediction – Westbrook will finish 3rd in the MVP race (behind LeBron James and Chris Paul)

7. Mitch McGary will be a 2nd team All-Rookie member – When McGary returns from his injury (probably around Thanksgiving), he should continue to be the all-around post player that we saw in Summer League and in his 1 preseason game. The things McGary does aren’t things that necessarily go away when more skilled players are out there on the floor against him. Instead, with the likes of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Jackson, etc. around him, he should be able to create more from the mid to high post. His defense will be a problem, but,really, which rookie’s defense isn’t a problem? As the team progresses towards a more skilled nucleus, McGary will eventually supplant Nick Collison as the team’s first big off the bench. Maybe not this season, but definitely next season.

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Andre Roberson will make 65 3-pointers this season – Call me an optimist, but necessity is sometimes the catalyst to progress. Perimeter shooting is something Roberson has been working on this entire offseason. He’s already a great perimeter defender, but his offense is what will make him a bonafide NBA player/starter. With Durant being out and defenses keying in on Westbrook’s every move, Roberson will be receiving the Thabo Sefolosha treatment from defenses. Which will lead to him getting open looks from deep several time a game. The shots will eventually start falling and in the process, Roberson will make at least 65 3’s this season.

9. Kendrick Perkins will not be traded this season – Perkins and his $9.4 million dollar expiring contract will look enticing to rebuilding teams wanting to either get rid of salary or looking to get up the salary cap floor. But there are two specific reasons why the Thunder won’t trade Perkins this season (or ever for that matter). No. 1, the Thunder’s big man depth is suspect. When they traded Hasheem Thabeet this offseason, they traded the only other center on the team. Adams is an up-and-comer, but still tends to foul too much for his own good. Collison and Ibaka can play center, but are much more comfortable at the power forward spot. No. 2, Perkins has buyout free agent written all over him if he is traded. While many Thunder fans under appreciate what Perkins brings to the table, other teams, especially contenders (Chicago, Cleveland, LA Clippers) would much appreciate the toughness, intangibles, and information Perkins would provide.

10. The Thunder will beat the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals in 6 games – Nuff said. I believe! Stormy weather (November and December) leads to rainbows and sunshine (May and June).