Tag Archives: Lakers

The Race for 8th and the Thunder

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I have really enjoyed this first season of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’. Many critics have panned it, but I think it has melded well with the Marvel movie universe, and has enough gumption to stand on its own. This season has focused on their hunt for The Clairvoyant, a villain who always seems to be one step ahead the agents. So much so, that the agents start to think the villain is in their head.

Well, I would like to let the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D know that I have found The Clairvoyant. His name is  Matthew Winick, and he’s the mastermind behind the NBA schedule. He has to be The Clairvoyant. Who else would’ve scheduled the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis Grizzlies to play each in round robin fashion in the final week of the season for the 8th seed in the Western Conference.

randolph nowitzki grizzlies mavericks

We rarely see “win and you’re in” scenarios in basketball, but this season we could possibly have 3 games which impact where those teams end up on the final day of the season. First off, the tie breakers are as follows:

  • Dallas owns the tie breaker versus Memphis (3-0)and is tied with Phoenix (1-1).
  • Phoenix is tied with Dallas (1-1).
  • Memphis owns the tie breaker versus Phoenix (3-0)

With Dallas holding a 1/2 game lead over the Suns and a 1.5 game lead over the Grizzlies, they are firmly in the driver’s seat. But the teams they face in their final 3 games have a winning percentage of .654. It doesn’t get any easier for Phoenix, whose four remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .577. The easiest trek may be Memphis’, which currently sits in the 9th position in the West. They play the 76ers and the Lakers before beginning their round robin games against the Suns and Mavs. They are in a much better position than Phoenix to control their destiny.

calderon dragic suns mavericks

 

As a basketball fan, you live for this time of year. The first two days of the playoffs have always been my favorite days of the season. Two days, two quadruple-headers. That is sweet nectar from the basketball gods. Luckily, basketball fans will get a 3 game play-in tournament before the playoffs even begin. Those games are:

  • April 12th – Phoenix @ Dallas
  • April 14th – Memphis @ Phoenix
  • April 16th – Dallas @ Memphis

With the Oklahoma City Thunder firmly in control of the No. 2 seed in the West after last night’s victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, my focus can be redirected towards the West’s 8th seed. Those three teams will be battling for the 7th and 8th seed. Other than who might finish with the 7th seed, how does this affect the Thunder?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder

The answer to that lies in San Antonio. There’s still a sliver of hope the Thunder can get the No.1 seed in the conference, and in the league. That hope lies in the fact that the Spurs will face the Mavericks and Suns on back to back nights. Two desperate teams against a team that is known to rest its starters as the season winds down. Tony Parker will be out for tonight’s game against the Mavericks. After they face the “duo of desperation”, the Spurs then travel to Houston to face the Rockets, who may be needing to win in order to stay ahead of the Portland Trailblazers for the 4th spot (and final home court position) in the West.

All told, if the Spurs finish 1-3 in their final 4 games, and the Thunder win out, Oklahoma City will head into the playoffs with the No. 1 seed. A lot of things will have to fall in OKC’s favor, but it’s not an impossible scenario. With the Spurs playing 2, or possibly, 3 desperate teams, the onus may be on them to hold on to the top seed in the West.

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The Stretch: The Thunder’s next 6 games

When the Oklahoma City Thunder were novices to playoff basketball, home court advantage was a must. In their first playoff series against the Lakers in 2010, the only two games the Thunder won in the series were in Oklahoma City, with a third victory being stolen by a Pau Gasol tip-in as time expired in the 4th quarter. The next season, the Thunder rode home court advantage all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the higher seeded, and eventual champions, the Dallas Mavericks. The next season, the Thunder made a repeat trip to the WCF, where the met the higher seeded San Antonio Spurs. Three years worth of playoff experience helped the Thunder weather a 2-0 deficit in the series, and they eventually went on to win the next 4 games (3 of which were in OKC) to make it to the NBA Finals.

The Thunder are experienced enough to not get phased by road playoff games. But getting the highest seed possible is more of a psychological ploy than anything else. The opportunity to not only get the first two games at home, but also the deciding game, if necessary, gives a team a little more confidence moving forward.

Do the Thunder need to get HCA throughout the playoffs? Probably not. But the Thunder aren’t yet to the point where they are willing to sacrifice late season games in order to rest their weary starters. Resting Russell Westbrook is a given due to the delicate nature of his recovery from 3 knee surgeries in an eight month period. Other than Westbrook though, I think the rest of the players are gunning for as a seeding as possible. In order to achieve that, the next 6 games will be extremely pivotal to positioning the Thunder near the top of not only the Western Conference, but also the entire league.

The Thunder were in a similar position last season, with the same cast of characters playing similar parts this season. The Thunder once again trail the Spurs, this time by 2 games. They, of course, will need some help from other teams. The Spurs play 6 games between now and their April 3rd meeting with the Thunder. The combined winning percentage of those 5 team (they play Denver twice in that span) is .482. When you factor the home/road splits compared to where the games are being played (whether in San Antonio or on the road), that percentage jumps up to .495. That’s not an easy stretch for the Spurs.

In that same stretch, the Thunder only play 4 games: a home/road back to back against Denver (tonight) and Dallas. Then they play Sacramento on Friday and Utah on Sunday. That’s basically 4 home games in that stretch, as Dallas is a 50 minute plane ride from OKC and the stands will be peppered with plenty of Thunder fans. The Denver/Dallas B2B will be difficult as both teams attack the Thunder where they are weakest (perimeter defense) and score a lot of points.

Much like last season, focus will be the key word when it comes to this stretch. The team may be on high alert when it comes to the B2B, but then may let their guard down when it comes to the Sacramento and Utah games. The Thunder have a tendency to play down to their opponents, and Utah and Sacramento can give the Thunder problems, if allowed.

 

One major difference between last season and this season is the injuries. Last season’s team was completely intact when it when on its stretch run. The playoffs, of course, were a different story. This season, though, the Thunder will be missing Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins for all of the stretch and likely will be missing Westbrook for some of the stretch. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Westbrook will miss the Denver game and one of the Sacto/Utah games.

Much like last season, the Thunder will get a 3-day break before the Spurs game. And then, they will hit the road for another game the next night, this time against the Houston Rockets. Luckily for the Thunder, it’ll be easy to get up for both of these games. The question is whether Westbrook will be available for both of these games.

If the Spurs stay true to form, they’ll start to rest their core on differing night beginning in April. If the Thunder are able to take the conference lead and maintain, they should be able to repeat what they did last season. And this time, not only is the number one seed in the conference at stake, but also the number one seed heading into the playoffs.

The Eric Maynor Sweepstake

bench maynor

With Eric Maynor’s DNP-CD on Wednesday night, in a blowout of the Denver Nuggets, it was quite apparent that his run with the Oklahoma City Thunder is over. Ten months after suffering a torn right ACL, Maynor’s athleticism and confidence seemed to be wavering to the point that 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson took over sole possession of the back-up point guard duties on the team 25 games into the season. While Maynor’s numbers were never that impressive, his command of the 2nd unit (and sometimes, the 1st unit) showed he had the potential to run his own team.

Back about two years ago, Maynor was being hailed at the best back-up point guard in the league. He led one of the best benches in the league, along with James Harden and Nick Collison. In hindsight, though, it seems that a lot of Maynor’s success was due in large part to James Harden. The former Thunder guard is now the 4th leading scorer in the NBA, with a 26.3 points per game average. The skills that he is currently exhibiting now as a Houston Rocket, were on full display during his first 3 seasons in the league, the last of which culminated with the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award.

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Maynor’s game was never dependent on athleticism. He was a prober that constantly tried to find the open man or an open lane, and rarely turned the ball over. After the knee injury, though, what little athleticism Maynor did have was sapped, as was his confidence. Maynor began to drive less and shoot more, leading to career lows in FG% (30%) and assists per game (2.1). Though he was never touted for his defense, that part of Maynor’s game suffered greatly after the injury. He was constantly getting beat off the dribble, which led to either leads dwindling or deficits increasing. After 24 games, the Thunder decided to try Reggie Jackson as their primary back-up point guard. Though not the floor general that Maynor is, Jackson’s athleticism and physical tools lend him to be a better defender and more of a driving threat on offense.

Reggie Jackson, Markeiff Morris

Being that Maynor is a free agent after this season, the Thunder would still like to get some value for him before the trading deadline. Maynor can still play the game, and maybe a change of scenery will help get his confidence back. Maynor’s value may not be that high, but the Thunder can package him with any number of assets to get a necessary piece to their championship puzzle. The Thunder are loaded with picks (Toronto’s top 3 protected, Dallas’s top 20 protected, and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd rounder) and young talent (Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, DeAndre Liggins, and Daniel Orton) that would be very attractive in a deal. I, for one, am not in favor of dealing Lamb, Jones, or Liggins. With the current cost of the top half of the roster, the Thunder will need good, cheap talent to stay in championship contention.

That would leave Maynor and Orton, plus the picks, as the only tradable assets I see on the roster. Being that the only feasible need I see for the Thunder is another bench scorer, hopefully a 3/4 tweener, I’ve decided to become armchair GM for the day, and see what moves I can come up with. Move over Sam Presti, my shine is too bright for the both of us.

Disclaimer: All moves have been approved on ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine. Any move involving Daniel Orton would need to get done after January 31st.

Deal 1

  •  Houston get Eric Maynor and the Thunder’s 2014 2nd rounder.
  • Oklahoma City gets Royce White and the rights to either Sergio Llull or Furkan Aldemir.

furkan

Why Houston makes the deal – Houston is loaded with PnR-reliant guards in Jeremy Lin, James Harden, and Toney Douglas. If a defense knows how to defend the PnR effectively, it cuts off the Rocket’s first plan of attack. Having a traditional point guard would be a change of pace for the Rockets and will allow them to exploit other facets of their offense, such as Omer Asik’s post game and Chandler Parson’s 3 point shooting. Also, Houston gets rid of a headache in White. The verbal/social media sparring that has gone on between White and the Rockets is well documented concerning his mental health.

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – While this eschews the notion of obtaining a bench scorer now, having the rights to either Llull or Aldemir would be a steal. Llull is the premier combo guard in Euroleague and would fit immediately into the Thunder’s rotation. Aldemir is great on the boards and would really help the Thunder in the post. Presti would probably tell White to stay at home and would negotiate a buy-out with his agent.

Deal 2

  • Milwaukee gets Eric Maynor, Daniel Orton, and the Mavericks top 20 protected pick.
  • Oklahoma City gets Mike Dunleavy

Why Milwaukee makes the deal – Milwaukee will be in a state of flux after the season. Their top two point guards, Brandon Jennings and Beno Udrih, are both free agents, though Jennings is restricted. The Bucks have been on record as saying they will retain Brandon Jennings, no matter what. A large enough extension would make retaining Udrih, currently making $7.8 million, nearly impossible. A cheap replacement like Maynor, who would sign for far less, would be more feasible. They could test drive Orton for half a season as all of their true centers are also free agents at the end of the season. The draft pick is just a sweetner.

mike-dunleavy-jr

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – Mike Dunleavy would immediately have an impact on the 2nd team as a scorer and shooter. The dribble and drive ability of Jackson would open up even more with Dunleavy and Kevin Martin on the floor together.

Deal 3

  • New Orleans gets Eric Maynor and the Thunder 2013 draft pick
  • Oklahoma City gets Al-Farouq Aminu

Why New Orleans makes the deal – With Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis, and Robin Lopez on the front line, Aminu becomes the odd man out. His inconsistent play has been a source of ire from the Hornet’s fan base. A veteran point guard would help this young roster out and an extra first rounder will help in the Hornet’s rebuilding process.

aminu

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – Aminu is exactly the type of player that the Thunder covet. A 3/4 tweener with possible upside and a long wingspan (7’3!!). In the right system, he could be a valuable contributor off the bench.

Deal 4

  • Phoenix gets Eric Maynor, Daniel Orton, the right to swap either of their lottery picks (theirs or the Lakers’) lottery picks if it benefits the Suns, and the Thunder’s 2013 pick.
  • Oklahoma City gets Jared Dudley

Why Phoenix makes the deal – Let’s face it. Phoenix is rebuilding and is not interested in long-term role player contracts. Dudley still has 2 years at $4.25 million guaranteed after this season, plus a player option for the same amount. Phoenix could flip Dudley for a young center, a possible better lottery pick, and a late first rounder.

dudley

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – The Thunder get a great role player with a good contract for the next 2-3 seasons. Plus, a player like Dudley has value and can possibly be flipped for other assets.

Deal 5

  • Cleveland gets Eric Maynor and Dallas top 20 protected pick.
  • Oklahoma City gets CJ Miles

cj miles

Why Cleveland makes the deal – It isn’t the Anderson Varejao deal, but Cleveland still gets a future first rounder for a role player that’s a free agent after this season. Plus, Maynor could dispense some veteran wisdom onto Kyrie Irving.

Why Oklahoma City makes the deal – The Thunder get a good role player that can shoot and stretch the floor. Plus, they don’t give up much.

kevin-durant-eric-maynor-2011-2-6-0-1-11

As a fan, I would hate to see Maynor go. He’s grown with this team and was a big part of its development. But, as we’ve seen with the Jeff Green and Harden trades, it is also a business in which every team is trying their hardest to get better. If a move can be made, and it is advantageous to the team, then it’s a deal that must be made. When the inevitable happens, I wish Maynor nothing but the best. He’s been a consummate professional and has a long career ahead of him.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers Preview (Game 36 of 82)

russ 4

  • When: Friday, 11 January 2013 at 9:30 CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

So the Los Angeles Lakers stand at 15-20, losers of five in a row, and in 11th place in the Western Conference. Even at their lowest, a game against the Lakers still includes bright lights and heightened exposure. Lakers fans and the NBA, as a whole, seems to have gone all “Chicken Little” with the Lakers’ current state, and yet, there remains an aura of hope that they will begin to click and reel off wins. So far, though, the Mike D’Antoni era Lakers have performed well below expectations.

 The Oklahoma City Thunder come into the game with a 27-8 record, having defeated the injury-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves, 106-84, in their last game. Since losing to the Lakers in the 2010 playoffs, the Thunder are 8-4 against them to include a 4-1 series drubbing in the second round of last season’s postseason. The Thunder defeated the Lakers in their first meeting of this season 114-108. Russell Westbrook set the tone in that game, going for 27 of his 33 points in the 1st half. Durant punctuated the 2nd half of that game with 18 of his 36 points. Kobe Bryant scored 35 points for the Lakers, who were without Pau Gasol.

 The Opponent

lakers2012-2013

 The Lakers are currently a team in disarray due to various reasons. First off, injuries have depleted the front line, with Dwight Howard (shoulder/back), Jordan Hill (hip), and Pau Gasol (concussion/knees) missing time recently. Secondly, the coaching change from Mike Brown to D’Antoni changed the entire system that was being run by the Lakers in the first month of the season. Thirdly, the chemistry is still under construction with the influx of new players, new coaches, and new systems. Fourth, the defense has been terrible, allowing 101.7 points per game, good for 26th in the NBA.

 The back court is an array of All-Stars, former MVP’s, and future Hall of Famers. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may be just a tad bit slower, but are still great at what they do. Kobe is leading the league in scoring at 30.1 ppg and Nash is still dishing out almost 9 assists per game. While still a physical defender, Metta World Peace’s dwindling athleticism has begun to affect what he is primarily on the court for. With Howard out, look for either Gasol or Robert Sacre to man the middle. The bench has been another issue for the Lakers, as the player they have do not match the system they want to run.

 Probable Starters

 Los Angeles Lakers

  •  PG – Steve Nash
  • PG – Darius Morris
  • SG – Kobe Bryant
  • SF – Metta World Peace
  • C – Pau Gasol

 Oklahoma City Thunder

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

 3 Keys To Victory

Ibaka-Perkins

  1. Weather the Storm – I have a feeling the Lakers are going to come out guns-a-blazing to start off the game. Kobe let World Peace do much of the scoring early in their previous game and that partially led to them being down 9 by halftime. Kobe will come out gunning, Nash will come out assisting, and you know some bench/unknown player (Earl Clark, Jodie Meeks) will erupt from 3 point land against us. If they get past the initial onslaught and stay defensively disciplined, the Thunder should be okay.
  2. Control the glass – With Howard definitely out and Gasol and Hill questionable, there should be no reason why the Thunder don’t win the battle of the boards by at least 8. One of the worst things to give an injured, struggling team is extra possessions.
  3. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – I don’t know what it is about these two when they play against the Lakers, but they seem to relish destroying this team. This game has Westbrook written all over it. I would think that the Lakers would start the game off with Kobe on Westbrook, but if they dare put Nash on him, watch out. Nash has lost a step or two this season, and Westbrook is one of the fastest athletes in the league.

Mr. Harden’s Opus

So I had this blog detailing why I didn’t think the Oklahoma City Thunder would sign James Harden by the October 31st deadline. I was going to work on it this weekend and publish it on Monday. I was hoping Harden and the team would still be in negotiations by the time I finished said blog. I truly believed the negotiations would be an issue that would be shelved until next offseason when the front office had more information (an entire season’s worth) to make more of an informed decision. Instead, with the OU/Notre Dame tied at 13 in the 4th quarter, I checked my twitter feed and saw this inconspicuous tweet:

Wow #Harden

I don’t remember who the tweet was from. But it piqued my curiosity and I clicked on the hash tag. I thought it was going to be a person that was surprised Harden had turned down a 4 year/ $52 million dollar contract extension. Instead, to my complete and utter surprise/horror, I started seeing the all the tweets about Harden being traded to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. The “Whhhhaaaatttttt???!!!” I let out startled my wife into rushing out of the kitchen to see what the hell was going on. The rest of the OU game was a blur to me after that. I went into Twitter frenzy mode and didn’t stop until after midnight. Once the shock and awe of it wore off (which most of it hasn’t), I was able to process the trade and evaluate it.

Here are the details from the trade:

Houston gets SG James Harden, C Cole Aldrich, SG Daequan Cook, and SF Lazar Hayward

Oklahoma City gets SG Kevin Martin, G/F Jeremy Lamb, 2013 first round pick (from Toronto, top 3 protected), 2013 first round pick (from Dallas), and 2013 second round pick (from Charlotte)

Here are some of the thoughts I have about it. I call this my “Mr. Harden’s Opus.”

The Good

My first option would have been to keep the Thunder nucleus together. But if you are going to trade Harden, this was probably the perfect batch of expiring contract, promising rookie, and draft picks galore. Let’s start with the big name from Houston: Kevin Martin. If you are going to find a substitute teacher for Harden, Martin is probably the best one year prospect available. An effective scorer who has averaged 18.4 points per game for his career, with a great mid-range game and an effective 3-point shot (38%). Someone who goes to the free throw line 6.6 times per game for his career. Defensively, Martin may not be as big as Harden, but it isn’t like Harden was in line for the All-Defense team, either. Both are sieves on the perimeter, but Harden is able to bang with bigger bodies like Kobe Bryant and Stephen Jackson. The one thing Harden really has on Martin is his play-making ability.

If the Thunder plan on bringing Martin off the bench, this plays out perfectly for them. With Eric Maynor back, Martin won’t need to take Harden’s place as a play-maker on the second team. Martin could be the gunner off the bench and the Thunder could use him in late game situations if offense is needed. For all the talk about Martin being a selfish player, he has never played with players of the caliber of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. The focus will be off Martin and he can do what he does best, which is score from the perimeter and get to the line.

The second, lesser known name in the trade was rookie Jeremy Lamb. This, in my opinion, will determine whether this trade will be viewed as a success or a failure. Lamb has the skill set and potential to be that dual threat shooting guard that the Thunder have been coveting in their championship run. Someone, potentially, with the length, athleticism, and defensive ability of Thabo Sefolosha, but also with the scoring and shooting ability of James Harden. Jeremy Lamb could prove to be that kind of player. With Martin in the mix for at least one season, Lamb can sit and learn this season without the pressure of being a starter.

The draft picks were probably what sealed the deal on this trade. Getting a good veteran with an expiring contract like Martin, and a rookie dripping with potential, like Lamb are things that many teams could have offered. But not many teams could have offered that and a slew of draft picks like Houston could. The Thunder, as weird as this sounds, are a championship contending team that got younger and obtained great assets. The Toronto pick will be a great trade chip going forward, as the Raptors are not expected to improve much from where they were last season. The 2nd round pick from Charlotte will also be valuable as it will probably be one of the first few picks from the 2nd round.

The Bad

According to sources, the final offer the Thunder made to Harden was in the 4 years / $55.5 million dollar range. Harden will probably end up signing with Houston for 4 years / $60 million dollars. You mean to tell me the difference between a potential dynasty with an established core, and completely blowing up a team 5 days before its season opener is $4.5 million dollars. That difference amounts to $1.125 million per season. The ownership group, which has made a commitment to all of its core players, could not come up with $4.5 million dollars more? This group of multi-millionaires and billionaires were panicking over an extra $1.125 million per year. Don’t get me wrong, though. I understand it is their money and not mines. But, keeping this core intact for at least another 4 years would almost certainly guarantee runs to the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals in that allotted time. Those extra games means about $20-40 million dollars extra in profit for the ownership group. You can talk about cap flexibility and assets until you are blue in the face, but when you have the potential to win championships in the here and now, AND you’re making money, you take those chances.

The scariest part about this trade is that a championship contending team was blown up less than a week before the start of the season when it didn’t need to be. We just went through 7 preseason games with our normal core intact, and now we only have 4 days worth of practice time to integrate 2, and possibly more, pieces to our team. When, in the minds of the front office personnel, did they say, “You know, this sounds like a great idea.” While the linchpin of this trade may have been Harden, Cole Aldrich may prove to be a big loss for the Thunder. He seemed ready to assume the role of back up center, getting 2 double-doubles in the preseason. Now, we are heading into the season with Hasheem Thabeet as our backup center. Granted, Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and possibly, Perry Jones III can all play the 5 in a pinch. But in a future playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, or Los Angeles Lakers, having an inexperienced and oft maligned center as a back up could prove to be detrimental.

The Ugly

Can someone tell me why the hell we had a lockout last season? All I heard during the lockout was about the percentage of the revenue that the players got and how salaries had gotten out of hand. Some even tabbed it as the “Rashard Lewis” lockout, with Lewis being the best example of a 2nd or 3rd tier player that received a max extension, thus limiting the cap flexibility of that team for up to 5 seasons. Basically, it was a lockout to keep the owners from actually overspending their profitabilities. So, then, why are teams paying players like Eric Gordon, Roy Hibbert, and James Harden max extension money. I thought max money was for top 10 players like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. Instead teams are throwing around stupid money for 2nd tier players. There’s 5 years left until the owners and players can revisit the CBA, and believe me, it will be revisited again, and this time, I fear, with dire consequences.

WWJD – What would James do?

Do you know who I’m not mad at for this trade? James Harden. Before the OU game on Saturday, I spent the whole afternoon thinking about University of South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who had just suffered a gruesome right knee injury. If you haven’t seen it, just think of Shaun Livingston’s knee injury from 5 years ago. Reports are coming out that Lattimore tore a couple ligaments and completely dislocated his kneecap. To make matters worse for Lattimore, he was coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered the previous season. If Lattimore was a stock and NFL teams were the buyers, he would currently be considered a toxic asset.

In a profession where your best years are in your mid to late 20’s, your earning potential is contingent on 5-7 years of performance and luck. If you suffer an injury or get involved in a legal scandal, your earning potential will go down. You, as an athlete, cannot dictate what the market will pay for you. If the market wants to pay you max money, then that’s what they pay. If they want to pay you veteran minimum money, then that is what you will get paid. I don’t blame Harden for taking what the market gives him.

As I wrote in my Pippen/Westbrook column, Pippen consistently took less than his market value to keep the core of the Bulls team together. Where did that leave him? Broke (most of it his fault, but still) and bitter. Harden could have taken a couple million less than what the market had placed his value at, but why. While we like to moralize athletics into this great teaching tool where you sacrifice for the greater good, at the end of the day, its a business. If a player can’t perform anymore, the owner is going to let that player go and move onto the next able body. It’s a business and a player would be a fool to leave money on the table.

I’m the Oklahoma City Thunder blogger for the blogging network called Hoops Talk Nation through the website www.thebreakdownshow.com. I currently blog on there for free. But if ESPN, YahooSports, or CBSSports ever called to offer me a spot on their blogging network for cash, I would take it in a heart beat. While I love the opportunity that Audley Stephenson and Dave Mendonca have afforded me, I wouldn’t be able to turn down the possibility of blogging AND earning cash to do it. Regardless of how I fancy myself as a blog writer, I would never turn down the opportunity to move up on the pay scale.

OKC fans should not hold this against James Harden. This is a business, and him turning down less money is a business decision. He is doing what he feels is best for himself and his family. Not unlike what we do everyday, but with less zeroes attached to it. Many will be mad for what they perceive was a lie from Harden with all the “sacrifice and brotherhood” talk. What did you expect from him? To come out and say, “I don’t give a shit what you think I’m worth. If the market says I’m a max player, I want max money!”

Being a fan is an emotional experience. When you mix emotion and money, you don’t make sound decisions. So, if you take the emotion out of the equation, you’d realize that James Harden did the same thing you and I would’ve done, which is to never leave 7.5% of a raise on the table.

The Trade and the Thunder

Well, what’s done is done. The NBA is not going to step in and rescind this trade, as Harden does not suffer from any pre-existing toe injuries or heart ailments. He is a Houston Rocket. And so are Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward. We cannot worry about them anymore.

What we do have are two unique players and 2 roster spots to fill. I think Kevin Martin will slide in seamlessly into Harden’s role off the bench. His efficient scoring and knack for getting to the line will have Thunder fans wondering whether James Harden shaved his beard, lost some weight, and slightly bleached his skin. The real prize in this trade could be Jeremy Lamb. If, in an alternate basketball universe, the basketball DNAs of James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha were interwoven, the result could be a player like Lamb. A 6’5” shooting guard with a 7’0 wing span and the ability to knock down long jumpers and play in transition. If you thought the Thunder were good with the Sefolosha/Harden SG platoon, imagine if only one player supplied most of those needs. There’s still a lot of development that needs to take place, but the skill set is already in place.

The open roster spots are a different story. The Thunder not only traded their 6th man of the year, but also their back up center, their designated 3-point specialist, and their designated end of the bench guy. While Hayward won’t be that difficult to replace, Aldrich and Cook could. I fully expect the Thunder to sign Daniel Orton to a minimum deal to compete with Hasheem Thabeet for back-up center minutes. The final roster spot is a bit of a mystery, though. Before training camp started, the Thunder signed Georgetown sharp shooter Hollis Thompson to a non-guaranteed 3 year contract. After playing in only 2 preseason games, he was one of the final roster cuts by the Thunder. They could sign him as a future replacement for Cook. Or, they could leave that roster spot open for future options, such as taking on a salary in a trade, or signing a veteran free agent (Derek Fisher, anyone?).

As for the core players, I’m curious to see how Nick Collison will react. He and Harden had one of the top 5 pick and roll combos in the league. Collison is one of the consummate professionals in the league and will be fine no matter what situation he is placed in. I think the onus of this transition will fall mainly on Russell Westbrook. If Westbrook continues to be consistent, as he was this preseason, then the Thunder should be fine. But if there was one player that helped Russell when he got into Honey Badger mode, it was Harden. Harden would take over the point guard duties and become the primary play-maker, especially at the end of games. That role now falls primarily in the hands of Westbrook, and to a lesser extent, Eric Maynor. While Maynor could fill the role of play-maker at the end of games, no defense will respect Maynor’s ability to drive and draw fouls like they did Harden’s. Martin could always be inserted at the end of games, but his play-making ability may be less than Westbrook’s.

How does this change affect the Thunder? They have never had to deal with a core-rattling trade like this one. The Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins trade shook the tree, but it was necessary given that Green was out of position at the 4 spot and affecting the team’s post defense. This trade wasn’t necessary for anything on the floor. Instead, it was a financial deal the team made to avoid paying costs in the future. The biggest negative in all of this is that it happened 5 days before the first game of the regular season. There will be no preseason games to indoctrinate the new players. Only a couple practices and then on to the season. The only positive I see in this situation is that our biggest threat, the Los Angeles Lakers, are also having to work out chemistry issues, after bringing in 2 main cogs (Dwight Howard and Steve Nash) in the offseason. The Western Conference may come down to whoever vibes first.

I do think this affects us this season. These guys just went from going to the Finals, then to the Olympics, then through training camp and preseason thinking they were going to defend their Western Conference title without a hitch. Then, BOOM!!! Over a quarter of the team gone, with 2 new pieces coming back. This is a team that is used to consistency. This consistency is what fostered to current Thunder culture. Consistency leads to comfort. Comfort leads to confidence. If you were part of the culture, you were part of the brotherhood. Now a shred of that is gone. I do think it will take the team a while to adjust from this one. Has their championship window closed? No, it hasn’t closed, but somebody definitely threw a baseball through it. The Thunder may come out stronger in the end, but I think it will be a case of one step backwards, two steps forward.

 In Memoriam

I will miss the Beard. Harden became a part of the fan culture. When you mentioned the characters on the team, you always had to mention Harden and his Beard. If the Thunder had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-like quartet, Harden was definitely Michaelangelo (the party dude!). I wish him nothing but the best in Houston. But if we are being honest, Harden was but a great role player. He scored when called upon, drove and drew fouls when needed, and made plays at will. But I never considered him to have the “it” to be The Man. Westbrook has that dogged “it” to be The Man. Durant is The Man. But Harden just seemed happy doing what needed to be done. So if Harden wants to see how his life will be post-Thunder, he need look no further than the man he was traded for.

What offseason? Basketball Never Stops!

As a fan of the game, I’ll watch any basketball game you have on the television, especially playoff games. But there’s a slight disconnect when your team is not involved. It’s not as emotionally taxing. With that said, I’ve never enjoyed basketball as a connected fan all the way into mid-June. Though I’m disappointed that we lost in the Finals, its fun to look at the calendar and know that in 3 months, training camps should begin to open up. I’ve forgotten what it feels like for the season to be over in mid-April. But this all leads us to the offseason. Time to rest and recover from the grind of the season. Oh, I forgot we have the draft coming up. And then we have Summer League. And all the offseason moves and transactions. All the while, we have the national team gearing up to defend its gold medal in this summer’s Olympics. What the hell does the off in offseason mean?

There’s a saying that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. The things that happen after the All Star break, such as trades and the signing of recently released players, can have a big impact on the rest of the season and the postseason. The Thunder have been the beneficiary of both of these player transaction moves in the past two season. Two seasons ago, at the trading deadline, the Thunder traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for starting center Kendrick Perkins and ultimate cheerleader Nate Robinson. Then, last season, they signed point guard Derek Fisher off waivers after he was released from the Houston Rockets. Due to the team’s stability, the Thunder usually remain pretty quiet during the offseason, though.

2012 NBA Draft

This offseason, though, the moves have been quiet, but plentiful. Heading into the draft, the Thunder’s only draft pick was the 28th pick in the first round. When you are picking this late in the draft, this usually means your team already has the necessary players to succeed. For a team as set as the Thunder, there wasn’t an immediate need that any player chosen this late was going to provide. One of the biggest needs the Thunder had was a big that was agile enough to defend other athletic bigs while being able to score from the outside and inside. Players with this skill set don’t usually last this long in the draft. The thinking was that the team would draft either an athletic wing or an overseas player that would be stashed in Europe for a couple of seasons.

Sometimes, though, the stars and planets align, and a player you were needing all along falls into your lap. There was always concern about Perry Jones III’s work ethic. The word ‘motor’ usually came up when his draft status was discussed. But, no one could deny the potential he had. The description of a 6’11” athletic forward that could score from outside and inside is the type of player that usually has teams salivating for his services. But a day before the draft, they were reports that many teams were concerned with the condition of his knees. After the recent knee concerns of Greg Oden and Blake Griffin proved to be true, not many teams were willing to spend a lottery pick on a player whose work ethic AND knees were called into question. Surprisingly though, 11 other teams outside of the lottery chose to pass on Jones III also. So when the Thunder’s name came up, Thunder general manager Sam Presti never hesitated, and went with the best player available, which coincidentally also filled a need. The best thing about it, though, is that it comes at an extremely cheap price.

Orlando Summer League

After the draft, the focus turned to the Orlando Summer League, where the Thunder were participating with 7 other NBA teams. As I wrote previously, the Summer League is full of good young players, Fringers, and Dreamers. Some of the players are already guaranteed a spot on an NBA roster and just want to mix in some team-oriented scrimmages and practices during the offseason. Most of the players though, are clawing and scratching for an opportunity to get onto an NBA roster. The Thunder’s roster consisted of 4 guys that, barring a trade, will be on the Thunder’s opening day roster (Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, Lazar Hayward, and Cole Aldrich). The rest of the players were probably not going to make it onto the Thunder’s roster, but could make an impression on another team depending on how they played.

The Thunder finished the Orlando Summer League 3-2. Reggie Jackson played like the most seasoned guy on the team controlling the tempo of the offense and attacking the basket at will. He even gave 2012 NBA Dunk champ Jeremy Evans a taste of his own medicine. Lazar Hayward showed why he’ll be at the end of an NBA bench for the next couple of years. He does a lot of things good, but nothing great. Cole Aldrich’s play was mediocre, at best. For a player that is looking to step up and be the back up center, his lack of improvement was a bit alarming. But, I would ask people to please step off the ledge when it comes to Aldrich’s development. Summer league games are made for wing players. They are glorified street games with refs and NBA assistant coaches on the sidelines. Aldrich will be asked to defend the paint, set picks, and put up a couple hook shots in the regular season. He will be fine. Perry Jones III suffered a sprained ankle in the 2nd half of the 2nd game, but not before impressing with his array of inside/outside skills. He will be in the Thunder’s regular rotation, if not in the 2nd half of this season, then definitely in the 2013-14 season. Other notables were forward Latavious Williams, who needs to be on an NBA roster somewhere, and Garrett Temple, whose play was almost veteran-like.

Off-season Moves

The Thunder has never been a big player in free-agency in their time in Oklahoma City. But in reality, they’ve never had to be a big player. Their main focus has always been on player development. When you have players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, that’s what you put most of your focus on. That came to fruition in the last two seasons with consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals and a trip to the NBA Finals this past season. The Thunder had 3 players that were coming up on free agency and all of them were veterans. Nazr Mohammed, Derek Fisher, and Royal Ivey could have all been signed to cheap veteran deals. But due to their years of employment in the league, even their minimum salaries would have been upwards of $1.5 million. The Thunder chose instead to let those vets walk, and focus on cheaper, younger alternatives. With Perry Jones III signing his rookie contract, that left 2 more spots on the roster.

The Thunder signed much maligned center Hasheem Thabeet to a 2-year veteran minimum contract. Now the difference between Thabeet’s veteran minimum deal and any of the other 3 Thunder players that were up for an extension, is that Thabeet has only been in the league for 3 seasons. For the final roster spot, the Thunder signed undrafted free agent Hollis Thompson from Georgetown to a 3 year contract. Thompson is a sharp-shooter in the Thunder mold (tall and long) that could be a cheap replacement for Daequan Cook in upcoming seasons.

The two signings sent Thunder nation into a tizzy, and not for good reasons. Most were questioning the “lackluster” moves by the team, while the team that beat us in the Finals picked up former All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and one of our biggest threats in the West, the Lakers, picked up a former 2-time MVP (Steve Nash) in their biggest position of weakness (point guard) without giving up a single player. The thinking was that the curse of the small market team was starting to take hold of the Thunder. That the ideology that small market teams can’t attract free agents and can’t spend money like the big boys was starting to rear its ugly head.

I, for one, completely disagree with that thinking. While it would be nice to sign former All-Stars ad-nauseam every offseason, the reality is that that would be bad business in this new NBA. The goal is to try and keep cost down while maintaining a competitive team. If your team does spend into the luxury tax territory, it better be winning. The Thunder have the right components in place to continue winning. The moves they made this offseason were made to keep those components in place. When you start talking about the luxury tax, every dollar counts. And if the Thunder are truly looking to keep both James Harden and Serge Ibaka on the same team as Durant and Westbrook, they are going to have to continue making these cost effective moves. Both Harden and Ibaka will demand deals that get them at least $10+ million per season. And, rightfully so. We’ll be in the luxury tax no matter what, if we keep these 4 players. The payments get more feasible, though, if you are competing for and winning championships.

Another thing that these signings do is maintain the flexibility that Presti loves. These signings not only have low cost-high reward potential, but they are also short term deals. That way, the team isn’t saddled with long-term contracts if the player, in question, either gets injured or doesn’t produce. Also, if someone better comes along, you could cut your losses with the player and attempt to obtain the better option. Cap flexibility is a commodity in the NBA, and Presti is one of the best at maintaining it.

Team USA

As if this offseason hasn’t been crazy enough, you have Team USA preparing for the Olympics in London. Not only that, but the Thunder has 4 representatives in the Olympics (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden for Team USA, and Serge Ibaka for Spain). Durant and Westbrook were near locks to make the team, but Harden was actually a surprise addition after players like Dwayne Wade and Derrick Rose bowed out because of injury. The team torched the Dominican Republic and eeked out a victory against a tough Brazil squad in the US leg of pre-tournament games. After this, it’s across the pond for a couple friendlies and then the real thing. Durant has a possibility of leading the team in scoring, while Westbrook will be the defensive pitbull/offensive sparkplug off the bench. Harden will probably play a role similar to what he does with the Thunder, but to a smaller degree.

As a fan of the game, I love this. Before NBA-TV, the offseason was usually a time to hear about a trade or two, and wait for football season to start. So, even though, this has been a whirlwind offseason, I still appreciate it. When this offseason gets too crazy, I always hark back to the 2011 offseason. Oh, you don’t remember the 2011 offseason? Oh, thats right, because there wasn’t an offseason that year.

A BIG Thank You

Throughout my lifetime as an NBA fan, I’ve never anticipated an NBA season more than I did this one. I, honestly, don’t know the reason why, though. Maybe it was the fact that the team I am civically connected to was a title contender. Maybe it was an appreciation of an NBA season almost lost. Maybe it was the fact that I was more intimately involved in the game this season than any other season. Or it maybe it was a combination of all of those things. Whatever the reason, the anticipation of the season was well conceived as it turned out to be the greatest season I have ever witnessed personally. 

Now, when I say personally, I specifically mean me. You may have a differing opinion on the greatness of this season, especially if you are a fan of the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, or San Antonio Spurs. Conversely, the fans of the Miami Heat probably loved this season, also. To each their own, I guess. But the one theme that made this season stick out more than any other was FAMILY. Not just my immediate family, but also the families I became a part of throughout the season. 

It’s a funny thing about families. Sometimes we are born into them, sometimes we marry into them, and sometimes we are accepted into them. But families are the people that make things that much more enjoyable. I could have enjoyed this NBA season just fine all by myself. The addition of family, though, made it exponentially better. So as a reminder of this great season, I would like to give thanks to all the people that made this season so enjoyable for me. 

First off, to my wife and kids. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy this season and not judging the craziness of my fandom. Thank for understanding that, even though I work two jobs, I do need something to de-stress myself. Some guys throw themselves into booze; some into cars. My vice is basketball, specifically Thunder basketball. Thanks to Wifey for picking my brain about basketball to either show that she “really” is interested or to gather knowledge, even if she isn’t that big of a sports fan. Regardless, I love her for it. Thank you to my oldest for being my protégé; for learning the names and numbers of the players, and wondering why one of the white guys (Cole Aldrich) doesn’t play that much. To my middle child, for being honest and showing me that not everyone has to like sports. Thank you for showing me that Despicable Me is sometimes better than a game. And to my little one. Thank you for belting out, “Let’s Thunder Up,” every time I said, “Its game time/ Its game time.” It’s been awesome for you guys to be a part of this season. 

Thank you to my parents and sister. To my mom, the lady that introduced me to being a fan of the game. To the woman that would talk about the game with me when we would take our 3-mile treks during my childhood. There’s nothing better than watching a game with the original fan, especially when she pays for the food at the arena (a HUGE plus). There’s nothing more that I would’ve wanted than for you to be there when we won the Western Conference Championship. Maybe next year, you’ll be in town, and the tickets won’t be so difficult to obtain. Thanks to my sister, aka Westbrook’s stalker, aka Meme Queen for becoming a super fan this season. Way to Thunder Up! And to my father, thank you for not being a sports fan, but rocking the free playoff t-shirts when it comes to mowing the lawn and washing the car. You Thunder Up in your own manner, old man. 

Thanks to my partner in crime; my brother that I split my season tickets with. That 90 mile trek to the game would not be as fun without you. Every victory is that much more awesome and every loss is that much more manageable. We are the super fans in Section 315 and will continue to lead the charge. Let’s take this thing all the way to the ‘ship.  And, maybe one day, we’ll call into the post game radio show and finally get the answer as to why Etan Thomas still hasn’t gotten any playing time (inside joke). 

Now that’s blood family. But in the progression of life, we also became parts of other families, where blood is not involved. This season, I decided to toss my hat in the blogosphere of basketball. Now mind you, I’ve never been a serious writer for anything. I hated English class and despised writing essays. But I started noticing that I loved writing about basketball on my favorite OKC basketball site, http://www.thunderfans.com . I started building up my writing confidence with posts about the Hornets, Sonics, and Thunder, and eventually asked to become the front page blog writer for the site. The owner of the site gave me the opportunity and I’ve been bitten by the blog bug ever since. So, for that, I need to say thank you to my favorite forum site for the establishment of my blogging roots. 

The next step in this story was starting my own blog. This was a process in, and, of itself. I’m pretty computer saavy, but not very internet saavy. So I started my blog site, http://www.nowthatsthunderbasketball.wordpress.com , and it sat dormant for about a month. After figuring out how to log on and how to use the Word Press format, I finally started blogging. My initial thought was that I would put some of my articles on the blog site and then let some of the people on the forum site know about it. And that’s how it started. But then I located the “link to Twitter” option, and I found a better avenue to get my work out to a more diverse crowd. 

From there, I became a Twitter junkie. I’ve never been a huge fan of Facebook, but the format of Twitter really appealed to me. I started following every basketball head I could think of and started to link my blog to them. Some responded back, but most didn’t. But the purpose of Twitter started to run its course. I was beginning to get feedback from people outside of the Oklahoma City market. And that’s where I met some of the people that would become my basketball media family. 

First, I met Audley Stephenson of http://thebreakdownshow.com who was planning to start up a blogging network that featured bloggers for all 30 teams. He pitched me the idea about becoming the blogger for the Thunder for http://www.hoopstalknation.com , and I jumped at the opportunity. I don’t even think 30 seconds went by before I responded back to his direct message with a resounding YES! Honestly, I don’t know if my articles have increased any of their page views or whether any one reads my work. But what I do know is that Audley and Dave Mendonca showed enough faith in this blogging neophyte to hand me the keys to my own team and let me operate and learn on my own. For that, I will always be thankful for them. 

Thank you to my brothers and sisters on the Hoops Talk Nation blogging network. I don’t know any of you personally, but it’s been a blast talking to you guys throughout the season about the one thing that binds us all….our love for basketball. The passion for each of our respective teams is only trumped by our passions for the sport. Let’s keep this thing moving forward and achieve greater things next season. 

While it’s exciting to be involved in an international blogging network, (remember, Toronto is in the Canada, so technically, we are international) it’s always nice to be involved with a group that’s closer to home. So for that, I have to thank Josh Hastings and Mike Erwin from http://www.visitorssection.com . These two gentlemen have given me the opportunity to expand myself as a podcaster, asking me to be their Thunder correspondent while the team went on their playoff run. Again, I don’t know if my inclusion in the podcast helps them out, but I do know the opportunity and experience I have gained have been priceless. 

The final thank you goes to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a sports world where cynicism and skepticism are the words of the day, it is heart-warming to see a team that actually embraces the nuances of the community they play in, and ties their themes to the core values of the populance. Whether it’s genuine or not, shouldn’t even matter, as the leaders of the team have tapped into the soul of the city and made a product that understands “us”. Themes like “Team Is One”, “One Thunder”, and “Team is 18,203” remind us, the fans, that we are just as important to the equation as the players. And the players, surprisingly, seemed to have become awestruck and humbled by the outpouring of support from the fans. 

It’s a delicate balance that can go awry in a very short span of time. An injury here or a difficult contract negotiation there, and the empire that was being built can crumble in an instant. The goodwill can quickly change to apathy and disgust. But I will always look back at this season with a huge smile on my face. And that huge smile is largely due to all the relationships I have built or been a part of over the course of the season. Thank you!

Round 2: Lakers vs. Thunder

Redemption road. First it was the defending champions Dallas Mavericks. Now it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. The two teams that have knocked the Oklahoma City Thunder from the playoffs the last two postseasons. The two teams that have gone on to win the championship after they dispatched the Thunder. Oklahoma City did what they had to do in the first round, sweeping the Mavericks in a hard fought first round battle. Now, after a week of rest, they await the Lakers who defeated the Denver Nuggets in a surprising 7 game first round series.

If you want to know what this series will be like, go to your local city gym and observe the basketball court for about 3 hours. You’ll usually find at least one game pitting teenagers (ages 16-22) versus middle aged men (ages 35+). You’ll see the teenagers try to use their athleticism, but the middle aged guys will usually counter with smart basketball and mid-range jumpers. The game usually ends up being close and competitive. The Lakers, of course, are the middle aged guys and the Thunder are the teenagers.

The Thunder won the season series 2-1 in what has turned out to be one of the most contested matchups during the regular season. In the first matchup, in Oklahoma City, the Thunder turned a tight game in the first half into a blowout in the second half, taking the game 100-85. Kevin Durant had one of his better all-around games scoring 33 points on 12/22 shooting, grabbing 4 boards, and dishing out 6 assists. In the second meeting, in Los Angeles, the Lakers held a big lead in the first quarter, but got outscored 84-63 the rest of the way, losing 102-93. Russell Westbrook led the way this time around with 36 points and 5 assists. The 3rd game, also in Los Angeles, was known more for a body part than for a game. Aside from the whole ‘Metta World Peace’s elbow to the side of James Harden’s head’ incident, this was actually a really close game and the Lakers needed overtime to defeat the Thunder 114-106. The real story in this game was the Thunder’s inability to get going offensively in the second half once Harden was sidelined with the concussion.

The Opponent

The Los Angeles Lakers come into the game having won a hard fought 7 game series against the up-start Denver Nuggets. Six of the seven games were played without Metta World Peace, who was serving his 7 game suspension following the elbowing incident against the Thunder. Everyone knows the engine that still pushes the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, who averaged 29 points per game in their 1st round series. Most importantly though, Bryant called out his teammates for their lackadaisical effort following their performance in Game 6. The two teammates he was probably referring to the most after Game 6 were Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who both were very inconsistent in the Denver series, interspersing great games with horrible games. Ramon Sessions had an average series in his first tryst into the playoffs, perhaps showing the signs of someone who hasn’t consistently started in the league. The bench, which  has been shortened to three players, is probably the weakest one left in the playoffs. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill all have the ability to provide good minutes, but due to the short bench, can be overused and therefore rendered less effective.

Keys to the series:

1)      How healthy is Kendrick Perkins? The Thunder have said all the right things regarding Perkins’ condition. But sometimes, with a muscle like those around the hips, its takes longer for them to heal completely. It’s one of those muscles that you don’t think about at all unless it gets hurt. With the amount of lateral movement involved in basketball, one can only hope that the hip strain is completely healed and doesn’t rear its ugly head anymore in the playoffs. Look for plenty of pick and rolls involving Andrew Bynum early in Game 1.

2)      Who guards Russell Westbrook? The Lakers got their Kevin Durant defender back in Metta World Peace. But their biggest issue has always been defending Russell Westbrook. Put a slower guard on Westbrook, and he blows right by them and does his damage in the paint. Put a smaller guard on him, and he’ll post them up. Look for Ramon Sessions to start the game guarding Westbrook. But as was seen in the Denver series, quick guards can get by Sessions pretty consistently. Look for the Lakers to regularly deploy hedge defenders towards Westbrook, especially the player guarding Sefolosha. Or look for Bryant to take on the task of guarding Westbrook himself.

3)      Remember that Metta World Peace is the Lakers’ 4th best player, at best. A lot will be made about World Peace’s first game in OKC since “The Elbow”. But the focus of the game needn’t not be on the man formally known as Ron Artest. World Peace will be on his “best” behavior and will not do anything to jeopardize the Lakers’ chances. Will he push, grab, annoy, and attempt to intimidate? Does the sun rise in the East? Of course he will do all that. But the Thunder need not involve themselves in revenge plots and try to take cheap shots at World Peace. What MWP is doing in the media is classic instigation techniques. Hopefully the Thunder players don’t take the bait.

4)      How will the extended rest affect the Thunder? In the 9 days since the Thunder last played, France elected a new president, another underwear bombing plot was foiled, Portugal got rid of four holidays due to cost cutting measures, new data leads scientists to believe that the Maya really didn’t think the world would end in 2012, and President Barack Obama supported gay marriage. That’s a very long time to not be playing any type of competitive basketball. You can practice all you want, but you’ll never be able to replicate the intensity of a real game against a real opponent. The Thunder had a 3 day rest between the first and second round last year, and looked completely flat in the first game of their second round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. A rest this long is completely new territory for the young Thunder and may be a factor early in the series.

5)      Which Lakers team shows up? The Lakers will be all-in in this series. It’s Kobe’s nature to be completely tuned-in to every game he plays, whether it’s a pre-season game against the Washington Wizards or a Finals game against the Boston Celtics. It’s Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol that can sometimes suffer from bouts of Adult OnSet Attention Deficit Disorder (AOADD). Against the Nuggets, both these players shut it down in Games 5 and 6, thinking that the will of the Nuggets would wilt and they would have an easy road to the second round. But in this series, both these players know what’s at stake and will be fully focused. Metta World Peace won’t be the MWP of earlier this season. He’ll be playing like Ron Artest from Queensbridge. And that could be a game-changer. The wild card for the Lakers may be Ramon Sessions. If for any reason he shrinks in the pressure of the playoffs, the Lakers may be in trouble.

Conclusion:

This series will be a hard fought battle in which home court advantage will win out. Thunder in 7.

Let’s Not Get All Defensive Now

In remembering these past 2 weeks, and watching the first 6 minutes of the first quarter in the Phoenix game, I’m reminded that, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder are athletically superior to most teams, their defense will be the tell-tale sign whether they reach glorious heights this postseason. A lot of the defensive breakdowns they had last season, are back again this season. The cast of characters is the same, so the fact that improvements have not been made, is really worrisome for their future postseason success.

 Two seasons ago, when the Thunder had Ron Adams as an assistant coach, they were near the top of the league in defensive efficiency and used that to propel them to the postseason for the first team since moving to Oklahoma City. Since Adam’s departure after that postseason, there has been a lack of defensive focus that is being masked and hidden by the team’s improved offensive efficiency. When the team struggles offensively, this lack of defensive focus can have adverse effects on the Thunder’s ability to win, especially in the playoffs.

The thing about defensive breakdowns is that they are usually a combination of several defensive breakdowns in one series. It’s not just one play in a possession that causes this. It’s usually a chain reaction of defensive lapses. The first thing the Thunder struggle with is their pick-n-roll defense. The Thunder guards, Russell Westbrook, in particular, have a tendency to go over the pick, instead of fighting through it to stay in front of their man. The problem with this is if the big man doesn’t hedge over a bit, the opposing guard just blows right by them and past their primary defender.

It’s a play like this where you have to know your opponent’s tendencies. If the scenario is guarding a slower guard (i.e. Jason Kidd or Mike Conley), then the Thunder guard can go over the screen as there is no threat of a blow-by. The only threat is if the guard is a competent 3-point shooter. The big man in this situation has to know who he is guarding and decide whether to hedge or stay with his man. In this case, if we are talking about Dirk Nowitzki or Zach Randolph, then it would probably be best for the defending big man to stay on his man.

If the situation is changed to a speedier guard, such as Ty Lawson or Tony Parker, then the big will have to hedge to allow the defending guard a chance to stay in front of his man. The worst thing that can happen in this situation is a switch, where the big is guarding a speedy guard, and the defending guard is on the offensive big. This opens up a ton of options for the offense and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

The primary goal of the pick-n-roll is to allow movement towards the rim. But, against the Thunder, this is also achieved through dribble penetration. When he was drafted out of UCLA, Russell Westbrook was advertised as a defensive guard, having just won Pac-10 defensive player of the year. But what worked in college (gambling on steals, using other-worldly athleticism to pressure opponents) hasn’t worked quite as well in the NBA where the world’s best basketball players play. A lot of what makes defense work is where you are positioned. If you are not in the correct defensive position, an NBA player will blow by you in a heartbeat.

Where Thabo Sefolosha is more of a technical defender, using his length to make the opposition adjust their play, Westbrook is more an instinctual defender, always trying to go after the steal. But don’t mistake steals for good defense. When you constantly gamble for steals, you put pressure on the rest of the defense to play 4 on 5 defensively. Eventually, the open man will be located, and its usually on the 3-point line or for an easy bucket.

This, then leads to the next defensive issue for the Thunder, which is closing out shooters. After the acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and the insertion of Serge Ibaka into the starting lineup last season, the Thunder went from squishy soft interior presence to hardcore interior presence. One would surmise, with that kind of support in the interior (to also include Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed), the Thunder wings would trust their bigs more and not sink in every time the ball gets into the paint. Instead, it’s become commonplace for the entire defense to sag into the paint when a breach occurs which leads to wide open three point shots. Teams like San Antonio and Dallas feast on this and always give the Thunder problems.

Once the defense has been breached and the ball is in the paint, then the advantage goes to the offense. When big men have to move around, it takes them out of their comfort zone. Our big men like to battle until the shot goes up and then box out for a rebound. But if ball is penetrated into the paint, then the bigs have to move around to defend the paint. Even with Ibaka leading the league in blocked shots, this still puts the defense at a disadvantage. If Ibaka leaves his man and whiffs on a blocked shot attempt, then his man is in position for the offensive rebound and put back. Much like steals, blocked shot don’t automatically equate to good defense. But if you are going to have Ibaka play free safety in the paint, then KD needs to slide down on defense and help out on the boards. While it may seem like this has been happening, as evidenced by Durant averaging a career high 7.9 rebounds per game, it also needs to be taken into account that the Thunder have played a lot more small ball with Durant at the 4 this season.

The most important issue with the Thunder’s lack of defensive intensity is their will. A lot of their deficiencies can be overcome by focusing more on the defensive end and working smarter. Ron Adams may have been a great defensive strategist. But even more important was that he held the players accountable for their actions on the defensive end. Once he left, there was a general sense of apathy concerning smart defensive basketball. The Thunder were content with just being good enough defensively and letting their athleticism dictate their defensive schemes. This is especially evident in the 4th quarter of close games. When the Thunder are focused, they can play great defensively and use that close out games.

It’s not all bad though. Due to their athleticism, length, and youth, the Thunder are one of the better teams at defending the fast break. They are constantly stifling transition opportunities for the opposition and cause a good number of turnovers defending the fast break. As we saw in the 4 game stretch from March 25th thru April 1st, where the Thunder played the Heat, Trailblazers, Lakers, and Bulls, the Thunder can put together a string of great defensive games. The question becomes, will that translate to the playoffs?

Just A Game

Its funny how life sometimes put things into perspective. A dear friend of mines passed away on Wednesday. Someone that I can proudly say was like a 3rd grandfather to my kids. His wife was my kids’ main caregiver before they started school. And while this gentleman was at work most of the time his wife was running the home daycare, there were those days where he was home from work and would help out with the daily chores of running a home daycare. The kids even had their own nickname for him, just like a regular grandfather. Not only that, but his daughter and my wife were best friends in junior high and high school. In addition, he was also one of my co-workers for about 2 years. Needless to say, there was a bit of history between our family and theirs.

So when the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the lowly Washington Wizards, it didn’t quite register as large a blip as it normally would have on my radar screen. I was still disappointed, don’t get me wrong. Title contenders aren’t supposed to be losing to teams that have a great shot at obtaining the No. 1 pick in the next draft. But at the moment, in that time, a loss to the team with the league’s worst record wasn’t really that important.

Honestly, in the context of an entire season, one loss isn’t really that important if you are either an elite team or a bottom of the barrel team. Barring injuries, I don’t think we will be struggling to hold our post as a home court advantage team in the Western Conference. History is sprinkled with examples of eventual champs getting surprised by that one go-getter team that is galvanized by their home crowd into playing out of their minds and winning that one crazy game. I call it the “Loser’s Game 7” effect. Washington will only have a couple of these games this season: OKC, Miami on February 10th and April 26th, Chicago on January 30th, the Lakers on March 7th, and the Clippers on February 4th. Bad teams don’t get hyped to play other bad teams. The Milwaukee Bucks don’t have their visit to New Orleans circled on any game schedule. Bad teams love being the hunters, if only for that one game.

The Thunder just happened to fall into the lions den on the wrong night. They started off good, but you could tell from the beginning they were playing a bit too loose with the ball. You give any team enough opportunities, and they’ll eventually start to cash in on those. And that’s what the Wizards did. They eventually started to feel good about themselves and started hitting shots, contested and open. They started to look like the team their fans imagined them to be. And for that one night, everything fell into place. The questionable blocking call was called a charge. The FT’s started falling. Hell, the 3 pointers started falling. In the end, the Wiz got one of their biggest wins of the entire season.

And it still doesn’t worry me that much. We are still a young team that is prone to hiccups at times, especially against lesser competition. We still had an opportunity at the end of the game to either tie it or win it outright. I just hope this serves as a lesson to the Thunder. When you are the hunted, you are usually getting the best from each team for the full 48 minutes. That’s something that still may be new to this young Thunder team. Elite teams lose sometimes, no matter who the other team is. The difference, is that they take each loss and use it as a lesson to be learned. And that’s what I’m sure Scott Brooks is doing right now.

As for me, I still did manage to watch the game last night on DVR. In the midst of pain, basketball is my refuge. Always has been. So with that said, I bid adieu to my friend, Hector Carreras. A good father, husband, soldier, pseudo-grandfather to my kids, and human being. An avid ping pong player, I guess the angel that used to play against God wasn’t cutting it anymore. So God had to call in his replacement. Rest In Peace, dear friend.