Tag Archives: Lazar Hayward

Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012-13 Midseason Review

This was supposed to be the year where the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden was supposed to put it all together and finally reach the mountain top. These four young men who had just competed (and medaled) in the Olympics were supposed to pick up where they had left off and continue on their improvement track. From 1st round losers to Western Conference Finals losers to NBA Finals losers, the eventual next step would have been NBA Finals winners. Everyone went into training camp with that mind set.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

And then, 5 days before the season started, in the middle of a stirring football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, came the shocking news that one of the quartet had been traded. James Harden, whose contract extension talks had stalled with the team, was traded, along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and 3 draft picks. It took several days before the jaws of Oklahomans throughout the state were picked up off the ground.

Once the shock wore off, and the trade was analyzed, it was one of those instances where it was a good trade for both teams. The Thunder got a comparable player in Martin, a good young guard in Lamb, assets in the form of draft picks, and salary cap flexibility. Championship contending teams usually never have assets and salary cap flexibility, but this trade gave that back to the Thunder before they had an opportunity to lose it. Houston, in return, got a franchise player in Harden. After clearing cap space and failing to land Dwight Howard in the offseason, the Rockets were chomping at the bit for a franchise-type guy. So far, it’s been a win-win for both teams.

kmart lamb

Whether we were ready for the season or not, it still had to be played. The schedule doesn’t care whether the Thunder made a big roster move five days before the start of the season. The schedule doesn’t care that the Thunder never got the opportunity to play any pre-season games with any of its new players. All the schedule decrees is that said team be at the location of the game with at least 8 dressed players. So with that, the Thunder embarked on the first half of the season.

November 1st, 2012 – November 4th, 2012 : The sky is falling!!!! Grab the women and children, and head to higher ground!!!!! (1-2)

After the core rattling trade five days prior, the Thunder had to open their season on the road against their Western Conference Finals opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. The game was back and forth most of the night with neither team controlling the game. In the final minute with the Spurs down by three, Tony Parker hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to tie the game. On the Thunder’s next possession, with the opportunity to take the lead, Russell Westbrook turned the ball over to give the Spurs one final shot. Tony Parker calmly sank a 21-footer at the buzzer to give the Spurs the victory.

parker

Of course, panic set in after that. Would the Thunder ever win another game again? Is this the beginning of the Curse of the Beard? Would we have won that game had James Harden not been traded? The second game was against the Portland Trailblazers in Oklahoma City. The Thunder easily dispatched of the Trailblazers in expected fashion. But that did little to quell the panic of the fan base, especially when Harden was in Houston averaging 35.3 points per game after the first three games of the season.

harden

The Thunder entered the third game of the season with high hopes. But after 21 turnovers and an inability to make shots in the second half, the Thunder lost to the Atlanta Hawks to bring their record to 1-2. Needless to say, some in the fan base were ready to jump off of the Devon Energy Tower.

Novemeber 6th, 2012 – November 23rd, 2012: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. (8-2)

This home heavy stretch against lesser opponents is just what the doctor ordered, not only for the team, but also for the fan base. After the Atlanta loss, the Thunder reeled off five straight win against 3 likely lottery teams (Cleveland, Detroit (x2), and Toronto), and one injury ravaged team (Chicago). It’s almost like the team had a mini training camp with these 5 games serving as preseason games. The players got a sense of what their roles were, and the coaching staff got a sense of how the rotation would work.

team

Then we played the Memphis Grizzlies, and got man-handled. The big boys (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) did work inside and Rudy Gay went all KD on the Thunder, hitting seemingly every big shot in the 4th quarter. The fear that engulfed the fan base at the beginning of the season changed from, “When will we win a game?” to “Will we be able to hang with the top teams in the West?”

Those fears were eased a little when the Thunder won their next 3 games, the final two being against Western Conference playoff hopefuls Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Against the Warriors, Kevin Durant notched his first career triple double with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Thunder went on the road and lost against the Boston Celtics after that in a close game. Overall, the feeling at this point in the season is that the Thunder were starting to get it together, but still had some kinks to work out.

November 24th, 2012 – December 19th, 2012: We’re going streaking!!!!! (12-0)

This is where the team seemed to put it all together. During this stretch of games, the Thunder beat their opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. The team averaged 108.6 points per game. That is an astonishing run. The winning percentage of the teams that the Thunder beat during this streak was .477, not necessarily power house numbers, but not necessarily the Sisters of the Poor, either.

There were some very important things that happened during the streak:

1)      We completely emasculated a team. In the second game of the streak, the Thunder beat the Charlotte Bobcats 114-69. The Bobcats were riding high coming into the game at 7-5, the same amount of victories as the previous season. The young Bobcats were looking to show what they could do against one of the big boys in the league. And the Thunder just beat them with their own stick. To a team that was still feeling itself out, this victory is just what they needed to prove to themselves that they could still run somebody out of the gym if necessary. The beating was so bad for the Bobcats that they did not win another game for the next month (17 games total after that).

2)      In the next game, the Thunder exorcised any demons from the trade and beat James Harden and the Houston Rockets handily, 120-98. While the game started off as a walk down memory lane, it quickly turned into an “us versus them” mentality when Harden had a spat that momentarily had Hasheem Thabeet ejected from the game. After that, Harden became another opponent that received boos. And the cherry on the top was that Harden completely struggled against the Thunder shooting 3-16 for 17 points, well below his average.

harden thabeet

3)      We dominated the Los Angeles Lakers at home 114-108. I know these aren’t the Lakers from a couple years ago. But this was the superteam that was constructed in the offseason to battle the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. When Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were added to the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, it sent shockwaves through the league that this would be the new team to beat. Though chemistry issues have kept the Lakers from achieving this, it was still good to beat them and let them know that we still run the West.

4)      We beat the Spurs handily at home 107-93. With the Lakers struggling, this team is probably our biggest rival. With the Western Conference Finals last season, and the close game the Spurs won to start the season, this was a pivotal matchup for the Thunder, not only record-wise, but mentally also.

December 20th, 2012 – January 7th, 2013 – Holiday sputter (5-4)

It’s a funny thing about perspective. If I were to tell you that we’ve won 17 of our last 21 games, you’d probably think that’s a pretty good run. But, if I told you that we’ve lost 4 of our last 9 games, you’d probably think that we are struggling a bit. This is where the Thunder found themselves at this point in the season. After winning 12 in a row, they lost on the road to an upstart Minnesota team that was just beginning to put it all together, before injuries once again derailed their season. Then, the Thunder lost on Christmas day to the Miami Heat. The one monkey that still hangs on the team’s back is the ability to consistently beat Miami.

russ miami

After the Miami loss, the Thunder went on to win 5 of their next 7. One of the losses was against the Davids of the NBA, or as I like to call them, the Washington Wizards. This Wizards team, with the worst record in the NBA, always seems to play its best against the Goliath’s of the league. They’ve already beaten the Heat once this season, and they beat the Thunder last season also. It’s just something about that slingshot.

January 9th, 2013 – January 20th, 2013 – Wonder Twins activate! (6-1)

This is what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done in the past 7 games:

  • KD – 35.9 points / 6.1 rebounds / 4.1 assists /1.7 steals / 1.3 blocks per game
  • RW – 29.0 points /6.7 rebounds /7.1 assists /1.0 steal per game

What these two guys have been doing the past two weeks has been nothing short of dominant. Durant had a career high 52 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks during this stretch. And Westbrook has notched 4 straight games of 30 points or more. It’s become a tradition that when the Thunder trade away a major player, someone steps up in his place. When Jeff Green was traded two seasons ago, Serge Ibaka and James Harden stepped up their games and the Thunder continued improving. This time around, when Harden was traded, Ibaka has elevated his game to another level, and the two superstars have gotten even better.

durant-westbrook

The Thunder ended the first half of the season with a 32-9 record, good for best in the league. They are the last team with single digit losses and have the best scoring differential in the league, at +9.0. Looking forward, the second half of the season will be a little bit tougher, though. The Thunder will have 3 more road games and the teams they’ll be facing have a combined .511 winning percentage. In the end, I see the Thunder ending up with the number 1 seed, not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA with a 63-19 record.

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….The More They Remain The Same

Any time something catastrophic happens, people always measure time from that point forward. In the show “Revolution”, everything is measured from the blackout, which is the catastrophic event in the show. Similarly, anytime something shocking happens to a sports team (i.e. trade, injury, retirement, suspension, etc), everything is measured from that time for the immediate future. No matter what they tell you, Clevelanders are still thinking about Lebron and The Decision. It’ll take a nice playoff run or two from Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and the young Cavs to start to erase the time clock from their collective memory. Chicagoans have become quite adept at handling these differentiating time clocks for the past 20 years. They’ve had Michael Jordan’s first retirement, his comeback, his second retirement, and, finally, Derrick Rose’s knee injury. They are just chomping at the bit to start the Derrick Rose comeback timeclock.

The Oklahoma City Thunder experienced something very similar a month ago. On October 27, 2012, the Thunder traded James Harden, Daequan Cook, Lazar Hayward, and Cole Aldrich to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, 2 future first round picks, and a 2013 2nd round pick. The Thunder were just coming off a trip to the Finals with their young core just coming into its own. They had their world-class scorer in Kevin Durant, their hyper-competitive floor general in Russell Westbrook, their pogo-stick blocking machine in Serge Ibaka, and their “jack of all trades” in James Harden. All under 24 years of age at the time. THIS team was supposed to grow together and contend for the next decade. Instead, after not being able to come to terms on a long term extension, Thunder GM Sam Presti decided to pull the trigger on the trade,  and send Harden to Houston. 

The first thought amongst Thunder fans was how Martin would compare to Harden. The players, while similar in some facets, were completely different in other facets. Both were great shooters who were very adept at drawing fouls when driving to the basket. The major difference between the two players was that Harden was more of a playmaker, while Martin was more of a scorer. That major difference was of chief concern to Thunder fans because Harden was usually the go-between when Durant and Westbrook were on the floor together in the 4th quarter. When Durant and Westbrook were out there on the floor together, teams had an idea on how to guard the duo. But add Harden to that mix, and the floor spaced out like the Red Sea of Moses.  

Basketball skills aside, the primary concern was how this trade would affect the Thunder’s chemistry. This Thunder team was one that had been hardened by its experiences. The struggles of learning how to win followed by the lessons of winning when favored. It was a 180 degree turn that many teams never experience. Many teams have trotted out young talented rosters that have either failed to pan out or were destroyed from within when it was time for contract extensions. The best comparison I have for the Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka Thunder was the late 90’s Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. Eliminate one of the Triplets from that mix, and the Cowboys aren’t winning 3 Super Bowls in four seasons. This is the current dilemma facing the Thunder.

One month in, and the transition has been about as smooth as it can be when changing out key parts. There have been some transitional growing pains, but that is to be expected when a core shattering trade is made 4 days before the start of the regular season. What is important is the Martin seems to be integrating quite nicely into his role as the team’s 6th man. Luckily, the team’s schedule has been home-heavy in this early going with the opponent’s collective win percentage being under .500. On the other hand, against teams with strong playoff pedigrees, such as the Spurs, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Celtics, the team has struggled and is 1-3 against those teams. The surprising revelation is that compared to James Harden’s stat line from last season’s first 15 games, you would almost not even notice a difference.

  • Stat                                       Harden (11-12)      I       Martin (12-13)
  • Minutes per game                     30.0                              30.7
  • Points per game                       16.3                              15.9
  • Turnovers per game                  1.8                                 1.8
  • Steals per game                         0.8                                1.3
  • Blocks per game                        0.2                                 0.1
  • Assists per game                       3.1                                 1.8
  • Rebounds per game                  3.9                                 2.7
  • FT Attempts per game               6.5                                 4.6
  • FT Made per game                     5.7                                 4.4
  • FT %                                             86.7%                           94%
  • 3pt FG attempts per game          4.6                                4.9
  • 3pt FG made per game               1.7                                 2.4
  • 3pt FG %                                       36.2%                           50%
  • FG attempts per game                 9.9                                9.9
  • FG made per game                      4.5                                4.6
  • FG %                                              43%                              46%
  • TS %                                               66%                             66.5%
  • eFG %                                            58.2%                          58.3%
  • Thunder Record                            12 – 3                            11 – 4

Other than the difference in assists per game, Harden and Martin have virtually the same offensive stats. Eventually, even the assists may be a wash, as Martin has shown a willingness to become more of a playmaker. People tend to forget that Martin has been the main offensive option on most of the teams that he’s played on and has been given the green light to shoot at will. But, with teammates like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka on the floor, Martin has shown that he can find the open man for an easy bucket or two. 

Defensively, Martin has been a liability, but Harden wasn’t necessarily on his way to being named to any of the All-Defensive Teams. This first half of the season will be one lesson after another for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook have been learning on the fly how to incorporate Martin into their crunch time offense. And Martin has been learning how to be more aggressive as a bench player. Overall, the transition has gone a lot smoother than many Thunder fans had feared. With Harden coming to town on Wednesday with his new team, the cycle seems to have come full circle. The more things change…….

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.

Summer League: Hope Springs Eternal

One of my favorite things about the offseason is Summer League. Everything is so optimistic during this time of year. That late 2nd rounder you got from another team for cash considerations? Of course he’s going to become a 3-time All Star for you. The combo guard you took with the 27th pick? You’d be crazy not to think he’s isn’t going to average 20 ppg this upcoming season. The 2nd year player who sat at the end of the bench all of his rookie season, and was the team’s honorary “human victory cigar”? Yep, he’s going to make the leap. Everything about Summer League is based on potential and hope.

In reality though, 80% of the players in Summer League will never get a whiff of the NBA. If you follow your team as voraciously as I do, you’ll learn the players’ names and then forget them just as quickly when Summer League ends. The only ones that stick in my mind are the ones that actually make the team, and the ones that end up with the Thunder’s D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers. And it truly is a shame, because for 99% of us fans, these players are just advancing to a point in their basketball careers that we could only dream of advancing to. There really are some good basketball players in Summer League, but like any other situation in life, if they are not cultivated in the right system, they go to waste. 

That’s why I love cheering for the Thunder during Summer League. This is a team that takes pride in cultivating players and rewarding them for their hard work and dedication. In 2011, Robert Vaden, our 2009 2nd round pick, was signed to play the final week of the season and was added to the playoff roster for the Thunder. Did he ever play an actual game for the Thunder? No, but he got to practice with the team, sit on the bench in a suit,  and cash a couple paychecks signed by Clayton Bennett and David Stern. Last season, our 2nd round pick from 2010, a little known forward from Florida State named Ryan Reid was signed at the beginning of the season. He actually played in a couple games and averaged 1.6 points. 

This year’s squad features a guy the team is grooming to become the back-up center (Cole Aldrich), a guy they are grooming to possibly become the back-up point guard one day (Reggie Jackson), a guy who could be an asset if injuries ravage the team (Lazar Hayward), and a rookie they are grooming to possibly become a rotational big someday (Perry Jones III). These players are locks to be on the opening day roster, barring any trades. They are in town to either sharpen their skills or test new skills. 

The other guys, the ones I like to call the Fringers, are usually just on the outside looking in. Back on the Thunder squad is Ryan Reid, trying to make it back to the NBA after being cut in the middle of last season to make room for seasoned veteran Derek Fisher. Another guy battling for a roster spot is Latavious Williams. This athletic forward made a bit of history in 2009, becoming the first high schooler to be drafted straight out of high school into the NBA Developmental League. The next season, when he became eligible to be drafted into the NBA, he was selected by the Miami Heat in the 2nd round, and was immediately traded to the Thunder. After playing one more season in the D-League, Williams signed to play for FIATC Joventud in Spain last season, winning Most Spectacular Player of the ACB League. Another player trying to get back into the league is Morris Almond, who is something of an NBDL superstar, but has never quite put it all together in the NBA. Basically, 3 guys possibly battling for one roster spot. 

Then, there are the Dreamers. The guys we should all be cheering for, because they remind us of our short lived hoop dreams. Kent Bazemore, Dwight Buycks, Marquez Haynes, John Holland, James Mays, Gary McGhee, and Garrett Temple. Remember those names, because you probably won’t hear of them ever again. Is there a chance some of them will make it as end of the bench guys in the league? Sure. And they’ll probably have a great story to tell about their journey to the NBA. But for the most parts, these guys will fade into overseas and D-League rosters. 

Such is the life of most professional basketball players. Always remember, that professional doesn’t just mean NBA. The players that play in the Philippines for pay are also considered professionals. As are the ones that play in Iran. And the ones in Mexico. The road in the journey to do something you love isn’t always paved in gold and silver. And it very rarely is a straight line. So I commend and salute the Fringers and the Dreamers for doing what they love, even if the road is full of potholes and roadblocks. So keep on hooping, gentlemen, because if many of us were given that opportunity, we’d be doing the same thing.

Trading Deadline and the Thunder

Business transactions are always about needs versus assets. And that’s what trades in professional sports are.  A GM will assess their team and see what is needed and what can be given up. Sam Presti, the GM for the Oklahoma City Thunder, has made his bread and butter in the previous 5 seasons by taking advantage of other teams’ needs for financial relief. It’s how he obtained Thabo Sefolosha, Eric Maynor, Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook, and the draft pick that became Serge Ibaka. He did this by meticulously managing his cap space and not making hasty free agent/trade decisions.

Now that the Thunder are done with the rebuilding process, and are currently in the championship building phase of their development, some of the things that Presti used to swing advantageous deals are no longer available. The Thunder are currently $900K over the salary cap, meaning that they can’t absorb contracts, and must instead match salaries up to 125%. As ironic as it sounds, a negative of being frugal and careful with your spending, is that the Thunder are not saddled with any bad contract, which can become very advantageous in their expiring years.

Needs

  • With the loss of Eric Maynor earlier in the season, the Thunder lost one of the best game managers (backup or starting) in the game. He was the ultimate yin to Russell Westbrook’s yang, and provided the Thunder with a stabilizing force at the point guard position whenever necessary. Now, in his place, is a rookie, Reggie Jackson, who has looked every bit the part of a rookie. His play, while improving, has been inconsistent, as he is still trying to find his comfort zone on this championship caliber team. Kind of a tall order for someone who wasn’t expected to be thrust into such an important position at this moment in his young career. Because of Jackson’s inconsistent play, a quality backup point guard has suddenly become a need for the Thunder.
  • The thing about a wing oriented team is that if the shots aren’t falling and the “box and 1” defense is working, it makes it nearly impossible to consistently score points. The Thunder are lucky to have such dynamic scorers like Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Westbrook. These players have made their careers by consistently hitting shots with hands in their faces. But in basketball, the closer you are to the basket, the more efficient and easier your scoring becomes. And the Thunder have never had a low post scoring threat. It’s one of those things that makes scoring in the playoffs a whole lot easier.

Realistic Assets

  1. Nazr Mohammed – $3.75 Million – Veteran big man that could fit in on a contender that needs size.
  2. Cole Aldrich – $2.29 Million – 2nd year big man that has shown improvement and could be a good rotational big, if not for the Thunder, than for another team.
  3. Thabo Sefolosha – $3.3 Million – Veteran wing who is still one of the better wing defenders in the league.
  4. Royal Ivey – $1.2 Million – Veteran guard who provides good energy off the bench.
  5. Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick (obtained in the Byron Mullens trade) – Charlotte probably isn’t going to get much better next season and that pick will probably be in the 30-35 range, where a good player can still be picked up.
  6. OKC’s 2012 1st round pick – Will probably be in the 25 – 30 range of the first round. Late in the first, but still useful for stashing an overseas pick or rebuilding.

Possible trade partners (based on need and cost of transaction):

Boston  – Keyon Dooling ($2.25 M) and Marquis Daniels ($854 K) for Nazr Mohammed. Boston is in desperate need for big men after the losses of Jeff Green, Jermaine O’Neal, and Chris Wilcox. Keyon would provide a veteran point guard that has played in the playoffs before. Daniels would more than likely be cut.

New Jersey – Sundiata Gaines ($854 K) for Charlottes 2013 2nd round pick – Gaines has quietly put up a good season as a backup point guard for the New Jersey Nets.

New York – Mike Bibby ($854 K) for OKC’s 2013 2nd round pick – With the emergence of Jeremy Lin and the return of Baron Davis from injury, Mike Bibby is no longer necessary in New York.

Cleveland – Ramon Sessions ($4.3 M) for Nazr Mohammed and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick – Compared to other teams’ offers, this is probably a “No” for Cleveland, but it’s still worth a try.

Milwaukee – Andrew Bogut ($12 M) for Kendrick Perkins, Daequan Cook, and OKC’s 2012 1st round pick – Bogut is just as good defensively as Perkins, while providing a lot more offense, if necessary. The Bucks will probably want either Harden or Serge Ibaka, which would make this a deal breaker for the Thunder.

New Orleans – Greivis Vasquez ($1.11 M) for Lazar Hayward and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick – New Orleans is in full rebuild mode and looking to acquire quality draft picks. A very high 2nd round pick would do just that. The question becomes how does New Orleans view Vasquez?

Charlotte – DJ Augustine ($3.2 M) for Nazr Mohammed and Lazar Hayward – I don’t understand Charlotte’s desire to trade Augustine, as Kemba Walker is still a rookie and is more undersized SG than starting PG at this point in his career. But, if they want to, we’ll participate if the cost is not too much.

Free Agent – Anthony Carter (formerly of the Toronto Raptors) was recently waived to give him the opportunity to sign with a contender. Using our Disabled Player Exception from the Maynor injury, which comes out to $758,340, we could sign Carter for the rest of the season.

And just for fun:

Orlando – Dwight Howard ($18.1 M) and Ish Smith ($762 K) for Kendrick Perkins, James Harden, Eric Maynor, Cole Aldrich, OKC’s 2012 1st round pick, and Charlotte’s 2013 2nd round pick. I don’t know if Orlando gets a better infusion of young talent and draft picks from any other team.

What does the team look like on Thursday at 3:01 PM?

I think we stay pat. Making reactionary moves is not Presti’s style. He knows we still have Maynor next season and Jackson will have gained an invaluble amount of experience in his rookie season. A smaller scale signing, like Anthony Carter will be possible, though.

Oklahoma City Thunder – Halftime Report

Any time I hear the word halftime, this is the first thing I think about.

We’ve reached the half-way point in this strike-shortened season. Half time, baby! Everyone to the locker room, or as it’s called in the NBA, All-Star Weekend. Coming into the season, I didn’t know what to expect. We were bringing back our entire 10 man rotation, plus a couple young guys that had potential. But with a very short training camp, no summer league, and only 2 preseason games against the same team, it was a little difficult to gauge how the team would come out the gates. Conventional wisdom would say that in a shortened season, a team that experienced hardly any change would benefit the most early in the season.

That thought has not proven to be incorrect when it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are currently tied for the best record in the league at 25 – 7 and have a 2 game lead in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. If natural progression is the law of the land, then the Thunder are right where they are supposed to be. After finishing 4th in the conference last season and making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder are poised to take the next step in their natural progression.

Individual Grades (alphabetical order): I take into account what was expected of the player before the season started and how that player has fared in this first half of the season.

 Cole Aldrich (Stat line: 12 GP, 7.6 mpg, 1.8 rpg, 0.6 blks, 0.4 stls, 2.6 ppg)

After spending last season shuffling between the Thunder and the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League, Aldrich was expected to continue developing into a rotational big man. When Nazr Mohammed was re-signed before the beginning of the lockout, it was an indication that the organization wanted Cole to continue to develop. In the 12 games that he has gotten in, Cole has shown a knack for causing havoc on the defensive end with his long wingspan and penchant for blocking or altering shots. On the offensive end, he has shown flashes of a nice post-up game (hooks, drop step, put back dunks), but has yet to fully assert himself and ask for the ball on the block consistently. He tends to be a bit over zealous on the defensive end and is prone to picking up fouls pretty quickly, especially on pump fakes. Aldrich shows great heart on the floor, though, constantly diving for loose balls. #FreeCole!

Expected Grade – C              Mid-Term Grade – C+

 

Nick Collison (Stat line: 31 GP, 20.5 mpg, 4.0 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 4.5 ppg)

The No-Stats MVP. The ultimate glue guy. Collison was expected to continue being the first big man off the bench. A key cog that can be plugged in seamlessly if foul trouble or defensive lapses rear their ugly heads. Collison has not disappointed in his role. He is basically the same guy from last season with more of a willingness to unleash the soul crushing 12-15 foot jumper. A charge magnet, the 2nd unit gets their defensive identity from Collison. One of the smartest players in the league that is usually in the right place, at the right time (and not by coincidence). Future coach potential.

Expected Grade – B+               Mid-Term Grade – A-

 

Daequan Cook  (Stat line: 31 GP (12 GS), 19.7 mpg, 2.6 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 5.6 ppg, 34% 3pt FG)

One of the wild cards coming into the season, Cook started last season in a rut that eventually led to him getting over 30 DNP-CD’s in the first half of the season. When finally given an opportunity to play, Cook became the deep threat that the Thunder had hoped for when they traded for him on draft night in 2010. Cook has continued to provide the deep threat for the Thunder this season and has also become a more integral part of the rotation, even starting 12 games in place of injured SG Thabo Sefolosha. He has improved his man on man defense and has involved himself more on the boards.

Expected Grade – C+              Mid-Term Grade – B-

 

Kevin Durant (Stat line: 32 GP (32 GS), 37.8 mpg, 8.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.3 blks, 1.3 stls, 27.7 ppg)

A candidate for MVP coming into the season, Durant has not disappointed. While his scoring may have gone down just a tad bit, his rebounding, assists, and blocks are at career high levels. He is scoring at the most efficient rate in his career and he is starting to be relevant defensively, especially on the boards. He is learning how to get the ball in better spots and how to position himself to get better shots in crunch time. The only negative I can see in his game is the turnovers.  The athletic part of Durant is starting to mesh with the cerebral part. And that is a scary reality for the rest of the league. 

Expected Grade – A                 Mid-Term Grade – A

 

James Harden (Stat line: 31 GP (2 GS), 31.6 mpg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 0.2 blks, 0.9 stls, 16.8 ppg, 37% 3pt FG)

The glue that holds the “feuding” yin and yang that is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together. We all know that the “feuding” part of that statement has proven to be false as this season has progressed. What started as an improvement over the 2nd half of the season last year morphed into calls for Harden to be the starting 2-guard as the new season began. Coach Scott Brooks kept Harden on the bench and he has turned into arguably the best 6th man in the league, providing instant offense off the bench, ala Jason Terry or Jamal Crawford. Along with being the unquestioned leader of the bench unit, he’s also in the game with the starters to close it out in most games. His playmaking ability and penchant for getting foul calls make Harden an offensive weapon to be marveled. While steadily improving defensively, he can still be had by good 2-guards, especially if quickness is a factor. Also, the home/road splits were an issue in the beginning of the season, but have normalized since then. Hopefully that doesn’t come up in the playoffs.

Expected Grade – B+               Mid-Term Grade – B+

 

James Harden’s Beard (Stat line: No stats can measure the greatness)

Seriously, this needed its own section. We’ve seen this thing grow from when Harden first joined the Thunder in June 2009. It started off so small and has blossomed into something so much greater. Olympic gods now bow in the presence of the Beard.

Expected Grade – A+              Mid-Term Grade – Infinity on a 4 point scale

 

Lazar Hayward (Stat line: 12 GP, 5.9 mpg, 0.9 rpg, 0.2 apg, 1.5 ppg)

Haywardwas obtained in a deal with the Timberwolves before the season. Hayward’s presence on the team is more as a practice player than as a regular rotation player. I believe, the bigger bodied Hayward has allowed Durant to simulate what its like to go against a stronger defender and to see what works against these types of defenders and what doesn’t. In his time on the floor,Hayward has shown to be a good transition player. He needs to be more consistent with his shot, especially from the 3-point line. Defensively, Hayward is an average defender.

Expected Grade – C                 Mid-Term Grade – C-

 

Serge Ibaka (Stat line: 32 GP (32 GS), 7.7 rpg, 0.5 apg, 3.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 8.3 ppg)

Just like James Harden (and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before them), Ibaka was expected to make the big 3rd year leap that we’ve seen from developing Thunder players. At the beginning of the season though, Ibaka seemed a bit out of sync. He wasn’t as aggressive and was settling for jumpers, instead of trying to do his damage from the inside. But over the last month, we’ve seen the Ibaka that we love and that opposing teams hate. In the last 3 weeks, we’ve seen 3 double digit block games, a man’s triple double (points, boards, blocks), and a disruptive defensive force not seen since the heydays of Ben Wallace. He still leaves a lot to be desired on the offensive end of the court as an inside presence. Though he sometimes leave us salivating with Olajuwon like post moves, he still prefers the 15 footer, which he is starting to hit with more consistency lately. His penchant for going for blocks usually leaves a gaping hole in the middle for offensive rebounders.

Expected Grade – B                 Mid-Term Grade – B+

 

Royal Ivey (Stat line: 9 GP, 9.7 mpg, 0.7 rpg, 0.2 apg, 2.1 ppg)

Ivey’s role on the team is that of veteran point guard. He’s a defensive minded player that probably pushes Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor in practice. When he has received playing time, Ivey has made a couple 3 pointers and played good defense. He has recently been called to duty a lot earlier in games because of some injuries to players. His defense keeps him in games, but his lack of a true identity (not really a point guard, but not very consistent with his jumper) can be a detriment if the team starts to struggle offensively.

Expected Grade – C                 Mid-Term Grade – C

 

Reggie Jackson (Stat line: 26 GP, 12.2 mpg, 1.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.8 stls, 3.7 ppg)

My expectation for the rookie was that he would split time between the Thunder and the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League, gaining valuable experience against lesser competition in preparation to possibly be a regular rotation player next season. But with the injury to Maynor, Jackson was thrust into the rotation as the primary back up point guard. The results have been par for the course for a late first round rookie point guard. Some flashes of decent play sandwiched between lessons from the school of hard knocks. They say that experience is the best teacher, so hopefully this is a blessing in disguise for the future. But in the present, Reggie has shown that he has the athletic ability to play in this league, but is still trying to figure out the nuances of the point guard position. If he is on the floor with one of the three main ball handlers (Westbrook, Durant, or Harden), he immediately defers to them to run the offense. Also, defenses have learned to pressure the rookie into making bad decisions. With all that said, though, I like what I see in Jackson and believe this experience will help him immensely in the future.

Expected Grade – C                 Mid-Term Grade – C

 

Eric Maynor (Stat line: 9 GP, 15.2 mpg, 1.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 0.6 stls, 4.2 ppg)

As a third year player, I fully expected Maynor to make that leap from okay player to good player. Already labeled by some to be the best back-up point guard in the league, Maynor’s steady hand at point made him the quarterback of one of the best bench units in the league. Like many players in this condensed season, Maynor’s play at the beginning was a bit careless, as he was averaging less assists and more turnovers. Nine games into the season though, Maynor suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the season. For all intents and purposes, Maynor’s recovery seems to be going ahead of schedule and he will be ready for training camp next season.

Expected Grade – B                 Mid-Term Grade – Inc.

 

Nazr Mohammed (Stat line: 31 GP (1 GS), 12.4 mpg, 3.0 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.6 blks, 3.1 ppg)

The old man of the crew. In a room full of 20-somethings, Mohammed is the revered veteran. Mohammed’s role is that of back up center. Last season, he was invaluable as a stop gap until Kendrick Perkins came back from injury and as Perkins’s backup. There have been times this season where Mohammed has looked as spry as a spring chicken. And then there’s been blocks of game where Mohammed has literally looked like he has cement shoes on. That’s what you get with a 14 year vet. You take the good with the bad.

Expected Grade – B                 Mid-Term Grade – B-

 

Kendrick Perkins (Stat line: 31 GP (31 GS), 26.5 mpg, 5.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 1.2 blks, 0.3 stls, 4.4 ppg, 10 technicals)

One of the most polarizing players on the team. Last year, Perkins was coming off major knee surgery and was slowed by bulky knee braces and the weight he put on while recovering. Vowing to come into camp more in shape, Kendrick came in 30-40 pounds lighter and shed the knee braces. But it’s been the same ol’ Perkins; a good post defender who does well against traditional centers, but gets lost if a team has an athletic and/or undersized center. Offensively, Perkins is a turnover waiting to happen. I don’t know if he lost some coordination during his recovery from surgery, but when he puts the ball on the floor, he usually loses it. When he attempts a shot, it’s usually a flat jump hook that is easily rejected. I don’t like to blast on Perkins since the Thunder’s record is so good with him in the lineup, but his biggest asset to the team is that he frees up Ibaka on the defensive end to be the NBA’s version of a roaming free safety. Another negative is the boneheaded technicals that Perkins picks up. He putting himself in a position to get suspended and miss time because of his hard-headedness.

Expected Grade – B                 Mid-Term Grade – C

 

Ryan Reid (Stat line: 2 GP, 5.0 mpg, 0.5 rpg, 4.0 ppg)

Every year there’s that one guy that you, as a fan, attach your heart strings to. The underdog. The runt of the litter. Ever since the Thunder drafted Reid in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, I’ve followed his career in the D-League. I was pleasantly surprised when the Thunder offered Reid the final roster spot for this season. This organization rewards “those” types of players that work hard to pursue their dream, even if everyone else has told them they have no chance. Last season it was Robert Vaden. Next season it may be Latavious Williams or Tibor Pleiss. When Reid finally got some run on the Valentine’s Day game, I was texting my brother in law in all caps. Literally, this was my text, “RYAN REID SCORED!!!!!!!!!” Honestly, in his limited game time, he has shown a good mid-range jumper and has shown the potential to be a future glue guy.

Expected Grade – D                 Mid-Term Grade – C+

 

Thabo Sefolosha (Stat line: 18 GP (18 GS), 20.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 blks, 0.9 stls, 5.2 ppg, 48% 3-pt FG)

Another polarizing player on the team. While he is one of the best wing defenders in the league, his offensive inefficiencies can sometimes lead to the Thunder playing “a man down” on the offensive side of the court. The clamoring for a change in the starting line-up only got louder as last season’s playoffs pushed forward, and teams began corralling Durant and Westbrook. The thinking was that Harden, as a floor spreader, would allow Durant and Westbrook more room to operate on the offensive end. Hypothetically, this would seem like the correct way to go. But, as this season has shown, the value of a great wing defender should never be lost in the search for more efficient offense. The game is played on both ends of the court.  As an added bonus, Sefolosha had shown signs of being more offensively efficient this season. He had begun to drive the ball more to the basket and was shooting the 3-pointer at a 48% clip. Not that he shot that many, but of the few that he did shoot, he was making almost half of them. I still cringe when I see him lead a fast-break, though. Unfortunately though, Sefolosha has been battling foot issues and has been limited this season and is expected to miss one more month.

Expected Grade – B-               Mid-Term Grade – B+

 

Russell Westbrook (Stat line: 32 GP (32 GS), 4.8 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.9 stls, 23.4 ppg)

Probably the most polarizing player on the Thunder. Last season, ironically, Westbrook’s 3rd, he went from good player to superstar. He, along with Derrick Rose, became the new standard for point guards: hybrids that could score 25 ppg and dish out 8 assists per game, while constantly breaking down a defense and doing their damage from the paint. You knew that Durant could score and that all he needed to do was refine the finer points of his game (rebounding, playmaking, etc). But you didn’t know where the learning curve would take you with Westbrook. Because of the criticism that Westbrook was receiving in last season’s playoffs and in the off-season, and the upcoming contract extension, I didn’t know what to expect from Westbrook. In the first 2 weeks of the season, it seemed like Westbrook was in the funk of all funks. His shot wasn’t falling, his assists were down, and there were rumblings of a true feud between he and Durant. Thankfully, things seemed to turn around in the middle of January (coincidentally once Russell signed his new contract) and Russell has been playing great ever since, garnering a couple Western Conference Player of the Week awards along the way. With Derrick Rose’s injury woes this season, Russell Westbrook has taken the role of premier point guard with his driving ability and consistent mid-range jumper. He still turns the ball over way too much and doesn’t always work to involve his teammates, but what I’m seeing from Russell this season is surprising because he’s still improving at a tremendous clip.

Expected Grade – A-               Mid-Term Grade – A

 

Surprises:

  • It’s amazing how important a real training camp and 4+ preseason games are to players in their preparation for a season. I noticed that in many of the Thunder players’ performances. They didn’t really take off until after the 2nd week of the season, which in actuality, would be the same amount of time as training camp and preseason games in a normal regular season.

 

  • I kept hearing about how injuries would shape this season because of the condensed schedule. But I had no idea it would be this bad. The Thunder have never experienced many injuries in their 4 season in Oklahoma City. An ankle sprain here. A pulled hamstring there. But this season, we’ve seen Maynor go out with a torn ACL, Sefolosha miss significant time with foot issues, and other players miss 1-2 games with general soreness.

 

Looking ahead:

  • The schedule gets tougher from here on out. We play the Lakers 3 more times, Miami and the Clippers twice, Chicago, Philly, Dallas, and San Antonio once each, and 6 more games against division rivals. We have a 3 game East coast trip after the All-Star break and a 5 game West Coast trip close to the end of the season. Needless to say, if we stay at the top the Western Conference, we would have definitely earned it.

 

  • Possible trade targets – Since the trading deadline is on March 15, I looked a possible trade targets for the Thunder and their struggles on the bench:
    1. James Anderson (Spurs)
    2. Tracy McGrady (Hawks)
    3. Stephen Jackson (Bucks)

Thunder UP!!!!!!