Tag Archives: Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 65 of 82)

westbrook adams thunder pekovic dieng timberwolves

  • When: Friday, 13 March 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

A historic month by Russell Westbrook, victories in 12 of their last 17 games, and a great improvement in team chemistry. And yet with all that, the Oklahoma City Thunder still find themselves in the same position they were in the first 3 months of the season: outside the top 8 in the Western Conference. After holding on to the 8th position for a couple weeks, the New Orleans Pelicans have retaken the last playoff spot in the West. With the Pelicans holding the tie-breaker against the Thunder, Oklahoma City have to find a way to win one more game than the New Orleans when it is all said and done.

This is the 3rd of 4 meetings between these two Northwest Division rivals.  The Thunder have won the first two games by an average of 13.5 points. The Wolves were missing Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio in both of the previous meetings.

The Opponent

garnett lavine dieng timberwolves

The Timberwolves currently have a record of 14-49, which puts them in last place in the Western Conference. They are currently in the beginning stages of a rebuild, having netted the last two No. 1 picks in a trade that sent Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are a mix of inexperienced young players and high priced veterans. It is apparent when you look at the stats, that the Wolves are playing more for the future than for the present. They are 22nd in scoring (97.6 points per game), while giving up the most points per game in the league (105.4 ppg). The T-Wolves attack is led by PG Ricky Rubio who averages 9.1 assists per game. Both the wings are the catalyst on offense, with Kevin Martin averaging 19.9 points on 39.9% shooting from deep and rookie of the year candidate Andrew Wiggins averaging 15.7 points per game. Up front, Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic give the Wolves an experienced post tandem that, while slow, is experienced enough to play around their weaknesses. The bench is a smorgasbord of young players and veterans, mainly featuring Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng, Adreian Payne, Gary Neal, and Chase Budinger.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • PG – Ricky Rubio
  • SG – Kevin Martin
  • SF – Andrew Wiggins
  • PF – Kevin Garnett
  • C – Nikola Pekovic

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Dion Waiters
  • PF – Mitch McGary
  • C – Enes Kanter

Edit – Serge Ibaka (knee) – out tonight/day to day

Three Things

1. Defense – The Thunder have allowed 111.4 points per game in the last 7 games. Not surprisingly, their record in that stretch is 3-4. They’ve been bad at the two staples of good defense: containing penetration and defending the perimeter. While the Wolves don’t necessarily have a plethora of 3-point shooters, they do have wings that penetrate and draw the defense in. With the Thunder’s penchant for sinking into the paint on defense, it may becomes one of those games where Martin, Neal, or Wiggins go off for 4 or 5 three pointers.

augustin collison kanter morrow thunder

2. The Others – The Russell Westbrook Experience has been exhilarating this past month and a half. But with Kevin Durant still out, defenses are completely keying in on Westbrook, making it extremely difficult for him to get into the paint. In the last three games, Westbrook has averaged 8 turnovers per game, as defenses either pack the paint or have an extra defender shading over to where Westbrook might drive. Westbrook can’t do it alone, and may need more than one other teammate to step up.

3. Trash Talkin’ KG – Steven Adams may have awakened a sleeping beast with his recent comments regarding Garnett and his penchant for sanitary verbalizations. Although Adams was completely complimentary in his interview, Garnett may not take too kindly to his words. Or, he may have softened in his older age and give props to the young New Zealander.

Bonus – Must-win – While it isn’t a must-win game, it sure has the feeling of one. Darn you Anthony Davis 30-foot desperation shot.

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2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Northwest Divison

Northwest Division

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

westbrook ibaka durant jackson jones thunder

Last season: 59-23 (1st in the Northwest Division, 2nd in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Mitch McGary – Draft (No. 21 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Anthony Morrow – Free agent signing
  • Sebastian Telfair – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Thabo Sefolosha – Signed with the Atlanta Hawks
  • Caron Butler – Signed with the Detroit Pistons
  • Derek Fisher – Retired (Head coach of the New York Knicks)
  • Hasheem Thabeet – Traded to the Philadelphia 76ers

Season Preview – After years of relying on internal improvement/development, the Thunder finally threw their hat into the free agency fray. They failed in getting Pau Gasol or Mike Miller to OKC, but did get the deep-range threat they coveted in Anthony Morrow. If healthy, this team is one of the best in the league. Sporting the current MVP and another top 5 players in Westbrook, the Thunder should benefit from their more versatile additions. When it comes to a team like the Thunder, though, its all about May and June. With the team’s shortcomings in the playoffs with such a talented roster, might this be the year that coach Scott Brooks starts to feel the heat?

2014-15 will be successful if: The Thunder win the championship

Projected 2014-15 Record: 61-21

2. Portland Trailblazers

aldridge batum lopez matthews lillard trailblazers

Last season: 54-28 (2nd in the Northwest Division, 5th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Steve Blake – Free agent signing
  • Chris Kaman – Free agent signing
  • James Southerland – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Mo Williams – Signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Earl Watson – Unsigned

Season Preview – The Trailblazers basically bring back the same team as last season, but with a little bit more veteran presence. Chris Kaman and Steve Blake should help shore up some of the inexperience off the bench. With that said, the Blazers’ Achilles heel this season will be the same as last season’s: lack of bench production. Second year guard CJ Mccollum will be expected to fill the production provided by Mo Williams. They were lucky the injury bug didn’t bite that hard last season. They will need similar health next season to produce the same output.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Blazers make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 52-30

3. Denver Nuggets

Indiana Pacers v Denver Nuggets

Last season: 36-46 (4th in the Northwest Division, 11th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Arron Afflalo – Obtained in a trade with the Orlando Magic
  • Gary Harris – Draft (No. 19 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jusuf Nurkic – Draft (No. 16 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Evan Fournier – Traded to the Orlando Magic
  • Jan Vesely – Signed overseas
  • Anthony Randolph – Signed overseas
  • Aaron Brooks – Signed with the Chicago Bulls

Season Preview – I only wrote three names on the “Key Additions” section, but with half the team coming back from injury, you could easily add about 5 players to that section. Now, half the team is a bit of an exaggeration, but the players who are coming back are core members of the rotation. JaVale McGee, Danilo Galinari, JJ Hickson, and Nate Robinson all missed time last season with surgery necessitating injuries. With all those key players coming back and Kenneth Faried coming off a great showing in the FIBA World Cup, Denver becomes the wild card in the Western Conference. Two seasons ago, they were the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference with many of these players on the team. It may take Denver a bit to gel, but I could definitely see them being a nuisance come the second half of the season.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Nuggets make it to the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 40-42

4. Utah Jazz

burke hayward favors jazz

Last season: 25-57 (5th in the Northwest Division,  15th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Trevor Booker – Free agent signing
  • Dante Exum – Draft (No. 5 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Rodney Hood – Draft (No. 23 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Steve Novak – Obtained in a trade with the Toronto Raptors

Key Departures:

  • Richard Jefferson – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Marvin Williams – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets
  • Brandon Rush – Signed with the Golden State Warriors
  • Diante Garrett – Traded to the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – The Jazz are probably at the midway point of their rebuild. Their young guys from 2-3 seasons ago are starting to come up for extensions and they have yet to show much fruit. They had to pay Gordon Hayward max money in order to keep him away from Charlotte. And their backcourt consists of a rookie (Exum) and a 2nd year player (Trey Burke). I think the Jazz take a step this season. Not necessarily a big one, but a 5-7 win improvement through the internal development of Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, and Trey Burke. Show improvement and the team probably stays the course. But, flounder again, and the team may be looking at a smaller rebuild for the future.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Jazz win 35 games

Projected 2014-15 Record: 31-51

5. Minnesota Timberwolves

"blg 04 wolves state fair"

Last season: 40-42 (3rd in the Northwest Division, 10th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Anthony Bennett – Obtained in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Zach Lavine – Draft (No. 13 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Glenn Robinson III – Draft (No. 40 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Andrew Wiggins – Obtained in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 1 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Mo Williams – Free agent signing
  • Thaddeus Young – Obtained in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers

Key Departures:

  • Kevin Love – Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Luc Richard Mbah a Moute – Traded to the Philadelphia 76ers
  • Alexey Shved – Traded to the Philadelphia 76ers

Season Preview – The Timberwolves seem to have a problem holding on to great power forwards. Kevin Garnett about seven years ago and Kevin Love this offseason. But they got a much better haul this time around for Love than they did for Garnett. Wiggins has franchise player potential and Bennett has match-up problems potential if he is healthy this season. Thaddeus Young is a good veteran stopgap at the forward spot, but is also young enough to grow with this group. I believe this team will surprise some people. Rubio is made to be a fast break point guard and now has the horses to let loose his talent. In the end though, this team is extremely young and will have plenty of growing pains this season. Luckily, they’ll also be exciting as hell.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Timberwolves’ young players show development throughout the season, and they still garner a Top 5 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 30-52

Kevin Love/Andrew Wiggins: Tread Carefully, Cleveland

love wiggins

The Cleveland Cavaliers have made every right decision this summer. They drafted Andrew Wiggins, won the LeBron James sweepstakes, and have begun to assemble a supporting cast similar to the one James had in Miami (even with the same players). But all those decisions were basically made for them. There was hardly any strategy involved in making those decisions.

When Joel Embiid injured his foot a week before the draft, the decision of whom to choose was parred down to Wiggins and Jabari Parker. With Parker doing everything possible to get drafted by Milwaukee (bad workout for the Cavs, back channel gossip that he didn’t want to go to Cleveland), the choice was made even easier for the Cavs. Of course, it WAS Cleveland with the first pick. There was always the possibility they would over think it and select Jusuf Nurkic with the number 1 pick. But with a selection this easy, they was hardly anything they could do to get it wrong.

The next step was to try and convince James to come back home. After getting to four straight NBA Finals on a veteran-laden team, the Heat were starting to crumble under the weight of how they were structured. The value of their aging veterans was diminishing, one of the Big 3 was starting to break down, and the Thor-like hammer of the CBA was finally starting to take its toll on the team. With James asking for his worth and requesting the full max, the Heat were at a financial crossroads in terms of what they could surround James with. Wade and Bosh wanted to come back, but weren’t going to take steep pay cuts to make it happen. With only Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier under contract, the Heat would be really hurting if they brought back the Big 3 with market-level contracts.

James, now more mature and savvy than he was four years ago, began to see the writing on the wall. When asked why he sometimes passes the ball in late game situations, James usually answers that he always makes the right basketball play. If ever there was an opportunity to not only right his most wrong, but also make the right basketball play, this would be it. With Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, a stable of young, relatively cheap players, and salary cap flexibility in the fold, Cleveland was beginning to look like the right choice. After hashing out any old grudges between himself and Cav’s owner Dan Gilbert, James signed with Cleveland for 2 years, with a player option after the first year. Again, a decision that was made for the Cavs by James.

kevin love lebron james

With James signed in, Cleveland went from being a punchline to being a destination city in NBA circles. Almost immediately, James’ ex-teammates like Mike Miller and James Jones joined the fray, with Ray Allen contemplating to make the same jump. Free agent decisions are always made by front offices, but with James in the mix, these decisions have basically been made for them. This has basically been the story of Cleveland’s offseason.

But now comes the big decisions. Cleveland as currently constructed is a young, up and coming team with the best player in the NBA. Think of the 2010 Oklahoma City Thunder with a 3rd year Kevin Durant, a 2nd year Russell Westbrook, and rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka….Now add 2010 Kobe Bryant to that team. It would have been a dynamic mix that would’ve won 52-56 games in the regular season, but would’ve probably floundered in the later stages of the playoffs due to the inexperience of most of the core of that team. And therein lies the decision for the Cavs: do they cultivate the pieces they have around LeBron for the long haul or do they make a big splash now while the pieces are in place?

On Thursday, after weeks of denying that he was available, sources stated that Cleveland would be willing to include Wiggins in a deal for Kevin Love. A trio of Irving, James, and Love would immediately be one of the best trios in the league. But the question for Cleveland becomes, “What else would you have to give up for Love?” And therein lies the difficulty of the decision.

Any trade for Love would have to involve more pieces than Wiggins, due to Love’s $15.7 million dollar salary. This is where the decision making will come into play for the Cavaliers. The Timberwolves have already been down this road before. In 2007, they traded All-NBA power forward Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, and 2 first round picks. Of all the players traded for Garnett, only Ratliff was over the age of 24 at the time of the trade. The number of the players involved in this trade was largely due to Garnett’s $22 million dollar salary at the time. Any trade for Love will be on a smaller scale due to him having a smaller salary than Garnett at the time of his trade from Minnesota. But the blueprint of the trade will likely be very similar.

Cleveland Cavaliers v San Antonio Spurs

Any team that trades a superstar wants three things in return: a large expiring contract, young talent with potential, and future draft picks. Cleveland is flush with young assets that have loads of potential. Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, and Dion Waiters have all shown flashes, while still being on their rookie contracts. In the last three seasons, Anderson Varejao’s name has appeared repeatedly on two lists: the players that will potentially be traded at the trade deadline list and the injured list. Varejao will once again be on the “players that may be traded at the trade deadline” list with his expiring $9.7 million salary. And, the Cavs also have all the draft picks for the foreseeable future, plus a first rounder from Miami.

Say what you will about LeBron and loyalty, but if you are one of his guys, he’ll do everything in his power to keep you by his side. He did that with his closest friends, who are now his agent and top advisors. The only 2 players he ever had that kind of relationship with was Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Varejao. You can bet that Cleveland will try everything in its power to keep Andy in a Cavs uniform this season. So that leaves the Cavs trading two or, even three of their young players to Minnesota. And that’s where it gets perilous.

Trading your young core for a proven superstar is a great plan for the present. The combination of three extremely talented players with a veteran supporting cast has been a winning formula for the past 7 seasons. Boston and Miami have ridden that formula to be participants in 6 of the last 7 NBA Finals, with 3 championships coming out of that. The only problem is that it isn’t a sustainable formula. Superstar salaries eventually rise, veteran players get older and less effective, and the CBA eventually wins over time. Three years into the experiment, you’re right back to square one. And that’s if everyone stays relatively healthy.

It’s just so strange though, because Cleveland has been down this road before. Last time around, Cleveland tried, at every turn, to surround LeBron with what they thought was the necessary talent to lead Cleveland to a championship. That led them to a bloated salary cap situation in which they were constantly cutting their nose to spite their face to retool and rebuild their team. Now that they have a team loaded with potential and a sustainable cap situation, they want to turn around and do it again. It needs to be brought up that Kevin Love has played the same amount of playoff games as Andrew Wiggins, Kyrie Irving, and Tristan Thompson. While Love is proven, he’s also still unproven when it matters most. That Cleveland is putting so much stock on someone who is so unproven should not only scare LeBron, but also Cleveland.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder at Cleveland Cavaliers preview (Game 68 of 82)

durant deng thunder cavs

  • When: Thursday, 20 March 2014 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH

Part Two of the Russell Westbrook Rest Experiment (RWRE). In Part One, the team looked completely overwhelmed by potential first round opponent Dallas in the game in which Westbrook didn’t play, while looking completely dominant in the game which he did play. It’s too easy to say that the team won simply because Westbrook played. Dallas is an opponent that gives the Thunder problems because of their propensity to score from the outside and because they have a premier score in Dirk Nowitzki. Chicago, on the other hand, lacks both of these traits, which enhances the Thunder’s strengths.

The first game of Part Two of the RWRE sees the Thunder face the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams, with the Cavs taking the first one in Oklahoma City, 114-104. Every season, Cleveland PG Kyrie Irving seems to have at least one “4th quarter explosion” game against the Thunder. Last season, Irving scored 13 points in the final 2:51 of the 4th quarter to turn a 1-point deficit into a 5-point victory for the Cavs. This season, Irving scored 14 of his 31 points in the 4th quarter to turn a 4-point deficit into a 10-point victory. The good thing about tonight’s game: the Thunder don’t have to worry about Irving who is out with a bicep injury.

The Opponent

cleveland cavaliers

Cleveland was supposed to be one of those up and coming teams that made the jump. A lot like the Minnesota Timberwovles, injuries and inconsistent play have derailed any chance the Cavs have of advancing to the playoffs this season. With a record of 26-42, the Cavs are still mathematically alive in the Eastern playoff race, but with less than 20 games to go, will need some help from the teams above them. Complicating matters is the fact that their best player, Kyrie Irving, may be out for the rest of the season with a biceps injury. In his absence, Jarrett Jack, who has been a disappointment this season, will be running point. On the wing, embattled 2nd year guard Dion Waiters can shoot the Cavs into games and shoot them out of them. Up front, Tristan Thompson is a near double double player and Spencer Hawes is one of the better perimeter-minded centers in the league. Anderson Varejao is still one of the better energy players in the league and comes off the bench for the Cavs. Because of injuries to key players (Irving, Luol Deng, CJ Miles), the bench is stretched about as thin as it can get.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Jarrett Jack
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Alonzo Gee
  • PF – Tristan Thompson
  • C – Spencer Hawes

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Reggie Jackson
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Interior Match-ups – With the Cavs PF being more of the inside presence and their C being the perimeter-oriented big, it would make sense to start Adams on Thompson and put Ibaka on Hawes. It would probably make more sense to start with a small line-up, and put Ibaka on Thompson and Durant on Hawes. But we know Scott Brooks would never do that as he has to have a classic center and a classic power forward starting every game.

hawes ibaka cavs thunder

2. Perimeter defense – This will be the only way the Cavs should keep up in this game. Even if the team decides to sit Westbrook in this game, there should be no reason why the Thunder have trouble against this depleted Cavs team. But if the team plays lackluster perimeter defense and Waiters, Jack, and Hawes all heat up from outside, this could be a repeat of the Dallas or Lakers game.

3. Bench – With a couple lackluster performances behind them, this would be a good game to get some of their mojo back. Maybe Fisher or Lamb can find their stroke again in this game. It only takes one shot to go in.

Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 51 of 82)

durant love thunder timberwolves

  • When: Wednesday, 05 February 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Two games in and I already miss January. It’s kind of a drag having to watch Kevin Durant score only 28.5 points per game. I mean, he looks downright superhuman out there, which is a notch below the deity like figure he became in the first month of the year. After suffering their annual loss in Washington D.C., the Thunder got back on track with a home victory over the surging Memphis Grizzlies. That was their first victory over the Grizzlies in 5 tries without the services of Russell Westbrook.

It doesn’t matter whether the game is in Minneapolis or in Oklahoma City, the Timberwolves always seem to give the Thunder fits. The Thunder have held the advantage in the past 5 season, winning 15 of their last 18 meetings, but every game is usually a very spirited affair. It has been no different this season. In the first meeting of the season, the Timberwolves blew out the Thunder. The Thunder returned the favor in the 2nd meeting, winning 113-103. It was the 3rd meeting of the season between these two that was more akin to how their games usually play out. This was the game, I think, that started the Reaping. With the Thunder down by 13 half a minute into the 4th quarter, Durant went on to outscore the Timberwolves 23-21 during the rest of the quarter. His play, along with that of Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and Serge Ibaka helped the Thunder come from behind to secure a 115-111 victory.

The Opponent

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves come into the game with a 24-24 record, 3.5 games out of the 8th spot in the Western Conference. To say that this season has been a bit of a disappointment would be an understatement. With health finally on their side, the T-Wolves were supposed to in the thick of the playoff race, not on the outside looking in. They boast a top 3 offense and are 7th in the league in Margin Of Victory (MOV). But their defense in terms of opponent’s ppg is in the bottom third of the league (20th) and they seem to find a way to lose close games. The offense is guided by PG Ricky Rubio, who’s continues to dazzle as a playmaker, but offers little else in the perimeter game. Ex-Thunder 6th man Kevin Martin signed with Minnesota in the offseason and is their second leading scorer. Kevin Love is having an excellent season, averaging 25.6 points and 13.2 rebounds. The Timberwolves’ bench has the ability to be explosive, but is a bit muted because of the absence of Nikola Pekovic and Corey Brewer.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Minnesota Timberwolves

  • PG – Ricky Rubio
  • SG – Kevin Martin
  • SF – Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
  • PF – Kevin Love
  • C – Ronny Turiaf

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Depth – The Timberwolves are currently down 2 starters, and possibly 3 depending how Kevin Love woke up this morning after that nasty fall he took last night. The Thunder’s depth may allow them to blow this game open when the starters are resting.

2. Timberwolves’ Front Line – With Pekovic out, does it really make sense to play Perkins that much? Ibaka and Nick Collison (or Kevin Durant) may be better suited to guard the Turiaf/Love front line, than Ibaka/Perk.

ibaka love jackson pekovic thunder timberwolves

3. Rebounding – The T-Wolves are in the top 3 in rebounds per game. It’s a major part of their game and acts as an equalizer to their lack of defense. Turiaf is a much more active rebounder than Pekovic, and can present a different set of problems than Pekovic’s size presents. It’ll be very important to keep them off the offensive glass.

Growing Pains: The Thunder’s young bench

jeremy lamb reggie jackson thunder

Injuries are an inevitability in sports. When you have bodies constantly in motion, there are going to come times when those bodies either collide or move in ways that cause injury. It’s the reason team sports have reserve players. In the wake of injuries, a team should have a healthy balance of veteran players and young, developing players. It’s the line that allows teams to sustain success while also building for the future. Have too much of either on the bench, and a team risks cutting into their current success or into their future success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have always had a decent balance of veterans and young players on the bench. But with the James Harden trade, they decided to rely on youth instead of looking for veteran help in free agency. At the time of that trade, they received rookie SG Jeremy Lamb, a lottery pick from the Toronto Raptors (that eventually turned into Steven Adams), and an early 2nd rounder from the Charlotte Bobcats (that eventually turned into Spanish guard Alex Abrines, a Euro-stash). Along with that, the Thunder already had 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson and rookie Perry Jones III in tow. In essence, the Thunder have been grooming this new bench mob for the past season and a half.

kevin martin hasheem thabeet eric maynor thunder

Another addition to the Harden trade was veteran guard Kevin Martin, who slid into the 6th man role that Harden occupied. Last season’s bench was veteran-laden with Martin, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and Hasheem Thabeet getting the lion’s share of the reserve minutes. About a third into the season, Maynor was replaced by Jackson and Derek Fisher joined the team after the All-Star break. The problem with our veteran bench last season was two-fold: there wasn’t any offensive versatility to it and it was inconsistent defensively. The scoring was either coming from Martin or it wasn’t coming at all. As his efficiency declined in the second half of the season, so did the bench’s offensive effectiveness. It got to the point where either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook had to be on the floor with the bench unit for it to be effective. Defensively, the bench struggled to match the athleticism of other younger benches.

On paper, the bench last season was a good mix of veterans and young players. But most of the young players spent their time in Tulsa and never got to test their mettle against NBA competition. Last season, Lamb spent 801 minutes (regular season and postseason combined) in the D-League and only 147 regular season minutes with the Thunder. Perry Jones spent 588 total minutes in the D-League and only 280 regular season minutes (plus 5 playoff minutes) with the Thunder.

perry jones thunder

 

Now, those two players, along with Jackson and Adams, are being asked to carry the second unit for a title contender. Veterans Derek Fisher and Nick Collison still play a prominent role off the bench, but the team is dependent on the young players to provide the team what the bench couldn’t provide last season, which was offensive versatility and defensive consistency. For the most part, the bench was starting to become one of the top benches in the league, before the Westbrook injury. After, though, it has been more inconsistent. And therein lies the problem with depending on such a young bench.

When the San Antonio Spurs suffer injuries to their starters, they can depend on veterans Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, and Patty Mills to come in and step up until those injured players get back. The same goes for the Miami Heat. When their line-up needs to be shuffled, they know they can fall back on the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Rashard Lewis. Veterans that not only know their roles, but also have championship experience to boot. These players know how to work through slumps and how to affect games in ways other than scoring. These young Thunder players are just now learning how to do these things.

steven adams griffin thunder clippers

There are positive signs though. The last time the Thunder played the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder were down for most of the game and Lamb was having a miserable game, shooting 2-7 FG with 2 turnovers. But he found ways to affect the game via his rebounding and defense, and made the plays necessary in the 4th quarter to help the Thunder win the game. Perry Jones has affected numerous games with his defense and ability to hit 3-point shots. And Jackson is showing signs of being a good combo guard, similar to Eric Bledsoe.

Reggie Jackson got his baptism by fire in the playoffs last season after Westbrook went down with his knee injury. But other than him, and 5 minutes of Perry Jones in Game 1 of the Houston series, none of the young bench players have any playoff experience. Could that come back to bite the Thunder in the rear during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals? It could, but nothing teaches quite like experience. Here’s hoping that the growing pains of the regular season turn into the epiphanies of the post season.

5-on-5: Analyzing the Thunder’s first 10 games

oklahoma city thunder huddle

The Oklahoma City Thunder have had a whirlwind first ten games of the season, but still find themselves with a record of 7-3. A collection of Thunder bloggers and podcasters have stopped by to discuss the beginning of the season for the Thunder.

1. What has been the biggest surprise of the season for the Thunder?

Alex Roig, Now That’s Thunder Basketball: The biggest surprise of the season for me was the quick return of Russell Westbrook. After the news broke that he had the arthroscopic procedure and would be out for the first 4 to 6 weeks of the season, I mentally prepared myself for a month of low scoring, frustratingly inefficient games. And this was before the Minnesota game. But alas, Westbrook returned in the 3rd game like a knight coming back from a victorious battle, and all was normalized in the land of the Thunder.

Royce Young, Daily ThunderGotta be Russell Westbrook’s return, right? Coming back a solid four weeks earlier than expected and completely changing the perception and feeling around this Thunder season.

Eli J. Friedman, Thunderous Intentions: The play of Serge Ibaka. When the Thunder lost Kevin Martin, people started to question how Oklahoma City would replace him with a third-option scorer. Many eyes looked to Jeremy Lamb or Reggie Jackson. So far, Ibaka has been that third option. He is averaging a double-double with 14.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks a game. Those are all-star type numbers right there. I didn’t see this type of play coming from Ibaka.

Zebulun Benbrook, Welcome To Loud City: The Thunder’s late-game resilience. They’ve had four games so far (Phoenix, Washington, Golden State, and Denver) where they’ve successfully re-gained the lead after trailing for the majority of the fourth quarter and much of the game. You might say that this is the bench unit’s fault, but I prefer to think on the positive side. Scott Brooks’ new flexibility regarding late-game rotations has paid huge dividends. Basically, he lets the starters and bench get equal time as complete units in the first 38-40 minutes of the game. Then when the game hangs in the balance, he throws in the Big 3 of Ibaka, Durant, and Westbrook along with the two other highest performing players, whomever they might be. This allows the team to have the optimal lineup at exactly the right time, and makes for some really exciting finishes.

Jay Smith and Andrew Schlecht, Down To Dunk Podcast: Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the season was the quickness in which Russ returned to the Thunder. After two lackluster games, Russ returned 3-6 weeks ahead of schedule and immediately changed the team.

2. What has been the biggest disappointment so far for the Thunder?

Roig: The biggest disappointment has been the play of Thabo Sefolosha. Honestly, you could flip flop between Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, but Perkins’ play (or lack thereof) isn’t anything new. We’ve witnessed the gradual decline in Perk’s game, and almost come to expect it. But, Sefolosha’s bread and butter has always been perimeter defense, and, to the eye, he seems to be getting torched a lot more in this small sample of games than he did in years past. To compound that, his offense has been virtually non-existent this season. And by offense, of course, I mean 3-point shooting. In the Thunder’s offense, they need Thabo to act as a perimeter decoy/floor spacer when he doesn’t have the ball, and to knock down threes when he does receive the ball. He didn’t do that in the first 7 games of the season, shooting 3-21 (14%) from 3-point land, which has led to the early season struggles of the starting 5 on offense. He’s gone 4-6 from 3-point land in the last 2 games he’s played, so hopefully he has turned the corner. Continue reading 5-on-5: Analyzing the Thunder’s first 10 games

Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 7 of 82)

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  • When – Wednesday, 13 November 2013 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where – Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

Finally! The first prime-time match-up of the year for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, they’ve faced the Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves, but this is the type of game that the national media salivates for. A game in November that, in actuality, has little to no meaning, but who’s hype rivals that of a match-up in May. Two teams many media pundits have picked as possibly coming out of the loaded Western Conference.

The Thunder come into the game having won 4 in a row after starting the season 1-1. They are starting to fall in line offensively, with Russell Westbrook working his way back into game shape and Kevin Durant leading the league in scoring (30.2 ppg). The bench, one of the many question marks coming into the season, appears to be one of the strengths of the team. But, 3-point shooting is still a huge concern for the team, as they are only shooting 27% from deep, good for 28th in the league.

This is the first of four meetings between the Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Thunder swept the season series last season, with one game going into overtime and the Thunder winning another one by 4 points. Stylistically, these teams are very transition oriented, which usually leads to high scoring affairs.

The Opponent

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The Los Angeles Clippers come into tonight’s game with a 5-3 record. After losing to their Staples Center brethren on opening night, the Clippers have won 5 of 7, with their two losses coming on a road trip through Florida (Miami and Orlando). The Clippers’ offense is the best in the league, in terms of points scored per game, at 109.9. But that figured is negated by the fact that they allowed the 28th most points in the league at 106.4 points per game. That offense is orchestrated by, arguably, the best pure point guard in the league in Chris Paul, who is averaging a league best 12.4 assists per game, while also notching 21.3 points. The starting lineup is a hyper active mix of athletic big men (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan), a scoring wing (JJ Redick), and a 3 and D wing (Jared Dudley). The Clippers also boast one of the stronger benches in the league led by Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Darren Collison, but lack any big man depth. Continue reading Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 7 of 82)

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

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5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

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When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

Oklahoma City Thunder: Ballin’ on a budget

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Growing up, there were two things I was heavily into other than girls: hip-hop and basketball. I grew up in a time when hip-hop was having an internal war within itself. What started off as a rebellious outlet of expression for the poor and struggling turned into an over-expression of opulence and decadence. Hip-hop went from being mostly underground in the 80’s to completely mainstream in the 90’s. That entrance into mainstream pop culture led to many rappers getting rich quick. But as quickly as the money came, it left, leaving many rappers bankrupt and back to where they started.

During this same time period, many of my friends and I were just starting to work. And work means money management, right? Considering I have no idea where my teenage money went, I would say I did a poor job of managing my money. But it’s funny what sticks with you from your teenage years. One of my real good friends, Ryan Rivera, came up with a phrase that still resonates to this day, not only with myself, but also with my team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The phrase was, “Ballin’ on a budget”.

Basically, it’s finding ways to live good without destroying your bank account or credit score. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work. A person wanting to ball on a budget has to have patience and self control. The urge to “keep up with the Joneses” can completely destroy any plan to stay within a budget. Many people in the world live outside of their means in order to put on the face of success. Nice shiny things equates to success in the minds of many. Ballin’ on a budget also takes a lot of work. You can either go to Dillards and pay $80 for a Gucci shirt, or you can bargain hunt at Ross and pay $14.99 for the same or similar looking shirt. The work comes in looking for the right bargain. You almost have to become a hustler to succeed in this venture. Bargain deals may not be sexy, but they’ll get the job done with less overhead.

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It’s the position where the Thunder find themselves at this juncture. With two trips to the Western Conference Finals, one trip to the NBA Finals, and one number 1 seeding in the Western Conference within the last 3 seasons, this team is definitely ballin’. But they’ve been doing it on a budget to this point. Thunder GM Sam Presti has built a championship contending team through great drafting, salary wheelings and dealings, and difficult decision making.

The current collective bargaining agreement has made things a bit difficult for small market teams that are toeing the line between being tax payers and non-tax payers. What was intended to be a punitive rule to defend against overspending by big market teams, has turned into another instance of “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. The Brooklyn Nets have gone into this offseason acting like a cancer patient that just won the lottery screaming YOLO! at everyone he sees. The Nets are projected to pay upwards of $80 million dollars in luxury tax this season, but they have an owner who seems hellbent on winning a title, no matter the cost. The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat have also been consistent payers of the luxury tax for the past 3 seasons.

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This brings up the difficult question: How are small market teams supposed to compete? In a recent interview with Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird made no qualms about the state of his team and how it compares to the Oklahoma City Thunder,

“Our owners went out and have done everything they could this year so we could be up close to the tax. We just can’t fight the tax. It’s always going to be a disadvantage for us. I feel bad for Oklahoma. They had a great team and they had to make a trade (James Harden trade). They were right there. But we’re going to have to do the same in the future. We’re always fighting an uphill battle with revenues. But that’s part of who we are. And we do the best we can with what we have.”

The key to competing in sports as a small market is to remain patient and look for the right deals. The goal of a big market team is to win at any cost. But the goal of a small market team is to remain consistently sustainable. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Pacers, and Thunder thrive on being able to compete year in and year out. I believe that’s part of the reason why the Spurs, who have won 4 championships since 1999, have never been able to repeat. They’ve remained consistently great, but have never been able to consistently spend like the bigger market teams to continuously improve their team on a yearly basis with no regard for payroll. There comes a point every couple of seasons where the Spurs have to retool with younger, less expensive players. Eventually those younger players gain the necessary experience to perform in pressure filled moment, but the team suffers in those “learning seasons”.

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That’s what I call last season for the Thunder. It was a learning season. After the Harden trade, the team didn’t really hit a consistent rhythm until the end of the season. And with all that, they still ended up with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and were probably a Russell Westbrook knee injury away from making it to a 3rd consecutive Western Conference Final. Next season will probably be another learning season, as the bench lost its leading scorer when Kevin Martin signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. With many fans clamoring for the Thunder to make a move to replace the scoring lost by Martin’s departure, the team has remained steadfast in trusting the young players they already have. Reggie Jackson showed last year in the playoffs what he is capable of after replacing Westbrook when he went down with his injury. Jeremy Lamb has performed well in Summer League and is expected to be a key contributor off the bench next season. And centers Steven Adams and Daniel Orton have performed surprisingly well in Summer League as rim protectors and, dare I say, offensive threats.

To many, this may seem like a cheap move by the owners of the team. With how good the team looked at the end of the regular season, it seemed like they were a resigned Martin and another bench scorer away from being an even stronger contender than they were when they made it to the Finals. With Martin’s bird rights in hand and the full MLE at their disposal, many thought the Thunder were finally going to jump into the deep end of the pool and join the other tax-paying teams. Instead, they allowed Martin to go to Minnesota in a sign and trade (that netted the Thunder a $6.6 million dollar traded player exception) and haven’t touched any of their available pre-tax cap space, which comes out to about $1.28 million dollars. That’s at least enough to sign someone to the veteran minimum. While the pool of free agents has gotten significantly smaller since July1st, there are still viable players available for the taking. So the question becomes: What are the Thunder waiting for?

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That is where the virtue of patience comes into play. For one thing, it’s only July. Many fans are panicking because of the moves made by other organizations, especially within the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Clippers resigned Chris Paul, traded for Jared Dudley and JJ Reddick, and hired a much better coach in Doc Rivers. The new “it” team, the Houston Rockets won the Dwight Howard sweepstake and landed a couple other veteran free agents. But, championships aren’t won in July; they are won in June. A team can stack a roster full of great players in July that may amount to nothing more than a first round exit the next April. Secondly, the organization has never said that they won’t pay the tax. They know that to be competitive, you may have to eventually pay the tax. But if you don’t have to pay the tax yet, why pay it? Along with more punitive luxury tax restrictions, the new CBA also instituted a repeater tax for teams that have paid the luxury tax for 3 consecutive seasons. With the escalating salaries of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, the longer you can hold off on being a tax-payer, the more financially competitive you’ll be. And lastly, you still have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. As long as those three guys are healthy, I think the Thunder have a fighter’s chance in any game.

The Thunder aren’t cheap. They’re just smart about how they manage their money. They already have a large percentage of the cap space allotted to the 3 players they deem the most important to the franchise. The reason the Thunder are perceived as cheap, though, is because they never had to “buy” any of those players in free agency. They drafted and developed them, and luckily, they turned out to be superstars. But sometimes, difficult decisions need to be made in order to maintain the financial flexibility that is tantamount to small market team success. That’s what happened in the Harden trade. The Thunder had 4 great players, but couldn’t pay 4 near max to max contracts. Ibaka helped the team by taking what is perceived to be a less than market value contract. Hoping that Harden would do the same, the Thunder drew a line in the sand, and said “here’s our final offer, take it or leave it”. When Harden rejected the offer, the team made the decision to move Harden to Houston. The situation was never a choice between Ibaka or Harden. But to make the numbers work, the team needed Harden to leave some money on the table, and for a young guy heading into his first foray into free agency, he just couldn’t do that.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

Being a money conscious team is not sexy at all. Following a team that is run on the principles of patience and bargain shopping is not for the faint of heart. You watch other teams stack their teams with what you perceive to be good to great players, while you’re constantly having to hope that your players continue to improve in the offseason and that the veteran minimum center you signed actually can play the game of basketball. It’s a tough life, I know. But I wonder how Miami Marlins’ fans really feel about their two championships. The Marlins organization went all in for two runs at a title, and then completely dismantled the team after each title. While the feeling of winning a championship can never be replaced, I wonder what the feeling of watching your championship team be completely dismantled the following offseason feels like. Luckily, I don’t think I’ll ever have to know what that feels like.