Tag Archives: Nazr Mohammed

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on the Thunder

kobe durant

There’s something to be said about big brothers. I never had one growing up, and, honestly, most of the people I associated with while growing up were the oldest children in their families. But in the examples that I did see while growing up, big brothers can help shape and mold younger brothers into something better than what they themselves are. As we’ve seen with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, big brothers don’t even have to be related to their younger brethren to have an impact.

Big brothers serve two purposes in life: to frustrate and to motivate. The frustration part comes from the big brother’s ability to dominate over the little brother due to being older, bigger, and wiser. The motivation part comes from the little brother wanting to be better than the big brother. The thing about this big brother/little brother dynamic is that the little brother is able to take notes on how to best his big brother, while the big brother just has to wing being a big brother.

bryant perk

In a lot of ways, with all due respect to Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey, Kevin Ollie, and Desmond Mason, the best example of a big brother to the Oklahoma City Thunder has been Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. With his recent season-ending (and hopefully, not career ending) Achilles tendon tear, I was forced to evaluate Bryant’s legacy when it comes to the Thunder.

If there is one word to describe my feelings towards Bryant’s basketball ability, it’s respect. Off the court, though, Bryant is one of those people that I would try to avoid like the plague. His arrogance and A-type personality, combined with a penchant to place blame on others when things don’t go his way, would be a package that I would completely avoid, if possible, in real life. But on the court, those personality traits, and the fact that he plays for the most polarizing franchise in NBA history, make for must see TV. Bryant is a five tool player that has a lethal 6th tool: the overwhelming need to completely decimate his opponent night in and night out, year after year. Michael Jordan had this 6th tool. Larry Bird had this 6th tool. Bill Russell had this 6th tool. Russell Westbrook HAS this 6th tool.

To view Bryant as an opponent is to respect someone out of fear. Fear for what he could do against your team. Fear that he’ll conjure up some bulletin board material for his mental bulletin board, and go off on your team for no particular reason. Fear that he could miss 10 shots in a row, but the 11th shot, with the game on the line, will go in without hesitation. That’s the kind of respect that Kobe Bryant garners. And yet, it’s a fear that keeps you staring in awe. He’s the type of player that fans say, “I hate what he does to my team, but I love to watch him play.”

kobe-bryant-lakers

Every successful up and coming team has that one hurdle they set their sights on. If you’re a team that is coming out of the dredges of the draft lottery, you mark successes in increments. First step is to be competitive on a nightly basis. Then the next step is to get into the playoffs. Then the next step is to be successful in the playoffs. You keep going until, hopefully, eventually, you win a championship. But along the way, especially in the early stages of the success journey, you always target that one team that’s been there and done that. For the Chicago Bulls in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was the Detroit Pistons. For the Orlando Magic in the mid 90’s, it was the New York Knicks. And for the Thunder, it was the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

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As fate would have it, that 2010 playoff series that pitted the No. 1 seeded Lakers vs. the No. 8 seeded Thunder was probably the best thing for the development of the Thunder. The fact that they were able to give the eventual champion Lakers a fight in the first round did wonders for the confidence of the young Thunder. But if you broke it down to its simplest form, the Thunder didn’t give the Lakers a test. They gave Kobe a test. They planted the seed in Kobe’s head that we would be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. When the crowd would chant, “Beat LA”, they were actually chanting “Beat Kobe”. Nobody feared Pau Gasol. Or Andrew Bynum. Or Derek Fisher (hehe!). We knew that Kobe had received the message. And that was both awesome and fearful (respectful) at the same time.

As the Thunder’s two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, progressed in the NBA world, they would eventually come in contact more often with Kobe Bryant. On Western Conference All-Star teams and, most importantly, the Olympics, Thunder fans can only hope that our superstars soaked up any of the psychological warfare that Bryant uses on a daily bases. Those blurbs that you hear from media members about Bryant talking trash to Durant, Westbrook, and at the time, James Harden during the Olympics, when they heard that the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, is just classic mental warfare from Bryant. It’s the equivalent of how the military drops leaflets into countries they are warring with stating how their government is endangering them, the common citizen.

Kobe+Bryant

So with that, I say, thank you to Kobe Bean Bryant. He has as much a stake in the Thunder’s ascension and success as does any of the veterans that played for the team. He was the target that we went after when we wanted to be successful. Much like an older brother, he frustrated us. But he also motivated us. And we learned much from facing him and defeating him. Here’s hoping that Bryant does come back, while, realistically realizing, that the Bryant we knew, may have gone down in a heap in the Staples Center on Friday night. Whatever the future holds for Kobe, just realize that the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder was shaped, in part, by the man in the Lakers uniform that we feared and respected the most.

Seize The Day

During Sam Presti’s “opening of training camp” press conference last week, he mentioned that starting center Kendrick Perkins would be out for the entire preseason, recovering from the 2 offseason surgeries he had on his groin and wrist. Being that Perkins is a 10 year veteran and a consummate professional, I am not at all worried about his conditioning, or whether he’ll be ready to play once the season starts. As an aside, can you believe that Perkins has already been in the league a full decade? But, in a way, I’m ecstatic that our younger centers now have a chance to prove themselves in some real game action before the season begins.

Oklahoma City’s trainer Joe Sharp and his medical staff have done a great job of keeping the Thunder players healthy, for the most part. And to their credit, the players’ quick healing and sheer stubbornness have also played a part in them hardly missing any games. With that said, I’ve always wondered how Eric Maynor would fare as the starting point guard for the Thunder in a couple games. We all know how he performed in the 4th quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in the 2011 playoffs. Was that an aberration or was it really how Maynor would perform with top notch talent consistently around him?  Not that I necessarily want to see Maynor as a starter for an extended period of time, but if Russell Westbrook were to sit out a game or two in the preseason, I wouldn’t mind at all. In fact, I would welcome it.

The biggest detriment to a young player’s development is lack of playing time. Would Darko Milicic be a better player today had he played for a lottery bound team that immediately needed him to develop, instead of being the human victory cigar for the Eastern Conference runners-up Detroit Pistons? We will never know that answer, but it serves as a cautionary tale in how teams handle their young players’ minutes. In the case of the Pistons, there just wasn’t enough room on the team for Milicic to develop on the floor. With Mehmet Okur, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess manning the front line for Detroit at different times during a 5 year championship window, there simply wasn’t enough minutes in a game to help develop a young center while still contending.

Which brings us to the three young centers on the Thunder’s preseason roster. Cole Aldrich, Hasheem Thabeet, and Daniel Orton are all trying to find their spots in the NBA. Three different stories that lead to the same two things: playing time and development. Aldrich would seem to hold the upper hand amongst the 3 centers, as he has been with the organization the longest. The 11th overall selection in the 2010 NBA draft, Aldrich has been entrenched as the team’s 3rd center behind Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. He’s shown enough in D-League stints and garbage time to keep the team intrigued with his defensive potential. With Mohammed’s departure to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason, the back-up center position is his to lose.

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself that you just have to try out. Sam Presti has always been intrigued by Hasheem Thabeet, going all the way back to the 2009 NBA draft. Thabeet was off the board by the time the Thunder selected James Harden with the 3rd pick, but Presti kept close tabs on him after that. There were always rumors of OKC trying to obtain Thabeet during the trading deadline. After 3 disappointing seasons, in which Thabeet had stints on three NBA teams and two D-League teams, the Portland Trailblazers decided not to pick up his 4th year option, thus allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent going into this offseason. Seeing the potential for a low risk, high reward player, Presti signed him to a 2 year, vet-minimum contract. The center, who is pretty mobile, despite being the tallest player in the league (7’3”), has the potential to be a disruptive force on the defensive end. The question is whether he can put all his physical attributes and talent together to be an effective NBA player.

Sometimes injuries play a part in negating a young player’s time on the court. Daniel Orton was drafted in the same year as Aldrich by the Orlando Magic as a possible back-up to Dwight Howard. After suffering a torn ACL during his senior season in high school, Orton once again suffered a season ending knee injury during his rookie season while in the D-League. After recovering in the 2010-11 season, Orton finally saw some game action in the 2011-12 season. The Magic decided not to pick up his 3rd year option, thus allowing him to enter unrestricted free agency. The Thunder decided to bring Orton in as a training camp invite to see how he fits into their system. He probably has the most untapped potential out of the 3 young centers on the team. Rumor has it that if the Thunder don’t sign Orton to a contract, they may try to keep him in their system through the Tulsa 66ers, their D-League affiliate.

The preseason will be a great opportunity for these three young players to show what they got. It may actually be their last chance to prove they are NBA-caliber players. The NBA is a league of “what have you done for me lately?” If a player hasn’t shown anything in his allotted time in the league, you can bet there is another player somewhere looking to seize the day and take that spot.

OKC Thunder: Training Camp Roundtable

Special thanks to the contributions by Zebulun Benbrook of Welcome To Loud City (WTLC) and by one of the smartest basketball minds I know, Max Trueblood (MTB). 

With the turning of the seasons, there are two things you can always look forward to: colder weather and the start of NBA training camps (unless there’s a lockout). Most of the players are already setting up shop in their NBA cities, preparing for the upcoming season. No matter how familiar you are with your team, a new season always brings about new questions. Here are a couple of questions in regards to the beginning of training camp for the Oklahoma City Thunder:  

  • 1)      With the recently finished strike shortened season, a trip to the Finals, and involvement in an Olympic tournament, how do you think Scott Brooks will handle Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka during training camp?

NTTB: I think they will limit their availability in preseason games, but I don’t think they will limit their training camp practice time. Last season, teams hardly got any practice time due to the compacted schedule. Less practice time meant less time to try new schemes and less time to build cohesion. Luckily for the Thunder, they brought back their entire core and all of their coaching staff from the previous season and didn’t need the practice time in training camp to indoctrinate new players or learn new schemes. This year it’s more of the same, but with more time for practice. Despite their age, the Thunder are a veteran team and the extra practice time will be invaluable to the younger Thunder players, such as Reggie Jackson, Cole Aldrich, Perry Jones III, and Hasheem Thabeet.

WTLC: Once players get to a certain point of their careers, I think you’ve gotta give them room to breathe. Durant and company have proven themselves in the context of the NBA, and while they have room for improvement, they’re pretty much known quantities in the sense of what they can and can’t do. My thought is that Training Camp will focus on the younger guys on the team, like Cole Aldrich, PJ III, and Reggie Jackson. And I’d like to think that it will focus on trying to get them adjusted to the team, rather than improving a certain skill. The Summer League and D-League are more focused on personal improvement, in my opinion.

As for the stars, I’ve gotta think Scott Brooks will make it business as usual. Everybody’s extra motivated after the Finals loss, and they are coming off of a break, even if it is shorter than normal. The NBA season is a long grind, and if you can’t make it through training camp, you probably won’t be able to make it through the dog days of January, either. I think what’s important to remember is that part of the reason Tim Duncan is so successful is that, even in his old age, he still allows Gregg Popovich to coach him like he was a rookie. It sends a message to the rest of the team about how to act, and what it takes to make it to the top. If Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka act the same way, then we’re in for a long road of success.

MTB: I’m usually not a fan of preferential treatment for superstar players but given the busy off season for the “Big 4”, I wouldn’t have a problem with them getting a few days off here and there.

 Let’s not forget, this has basically been 3 straight busy off seasons for KD. He had the World Championships in 2010, then played in just about every street ball game imagineable last summer and of course the Olympics this time. 

  • 2)      Out of Daniel Orton, Hollis Thompson, DeAndre Liggins, and Andy Rautins, who earns the coveted 15th spot on the team, and why?

NTTB: I’d say it’s a two man battle between Hollis Thompson and DeAndre Liggins. These two players are both long, which fits into the Thunder’s DNA, with Liggins being more defensive minded, and Thompson being more of a 3-point shooter. With so much of the offense being predicated on dribble penetration, the team would probably benefit from another shooter on the team. So, I would give the nod to Thompson, with Orton, Liggins, and Rautins leading the Tulsa 66ers the NBDL title. 

WTLC: Well, that’s a tough one. I haven’t seen too much of Hollis Thompson, but he’s pretty much the Perry Jones of the second round. He was considered a legitimate prospect and worked out for several teams, but a lot of teams decided to draft and stash Europeans with their later picks, letting him fall off the board. It really depends on how well he can return from his groin injury, and whether he’s really enough of a scorer to be considered better than Daequan Cook, or Andy Rautins. Rautins will be a good litmus test to see how good Thompson really is. Rautins is an excellent shooter, but he’s not very dynamic, which is why he’s never really caught on in the NBA. I’d only see him making the roster is Thompson doesn’t really pan out.

The strongest candidate, aside from Thompson, to make the roster is DeAndre Liggins. He didn’t get too much time with the Magic last year, but he was very efficient in how he played. He never took an unreasonable shot, and he he has good defensive awareness. He’s kind of like Kyle Weaver, but with a bit less energy. The big knocks on him are that his shot is extremely inconsistent (he’s airballed open threes) and that he works best under a slow pace, which doesn’t help when you’re playing with a fast breaking team like the Thunder.

The other guy on the list is Daniel Orton, but I think he’s really only there for the hometown appeal, as he went to Bishop McGuiness. When you see how many big men the Thunder have stockpiled, and the fact that Orlando didn’t re-sign him despite being really thin at center, seeing him make the roster seems like a pipe dream.

MTB: I’m going to roll with Andy Rautins on this one. I think the Thunder have tons of athleticism so an athlete like Liggins or Thompson isn’t really needed but with the team possibly cutting back on bench payroll in anticipation of retaining Harden at a max salary, I could see Presti seeing if Cook has a short term replacement and that would be a shooter. Rautins is the best of the group.

  • 3)      Heading into training camp, how will Perry Jones IIII fit into the rotation, if at all?

NTTB: With Kendrick Perkins coming back from two offseason surgeries and Nick Collison bound to suffer from one of his yearly training camp injuries (sore groin, sore ankle, sore knee, etc), I’m pretty sure we’ll get some idea how he will fit into the rotation right away. He’ll get a lot of reps in practice in our small ball lineups and that’s primarily where I see him being used in the rotation during the season.

WTLC: He won’t be a rotation guy. There’s too few minutes to split with Cole Aldrich, and Thabeet is probably ahead of him due to his previous NBA experience. It really all depends on how he does in training camp, but I don’t think he’ll see regular minutes unless there’s an injury or Cole Aldrich doesn’t live up to expectations.

MTB: I wouldn’t mind seeing Perry get some time in the D league this year. If Serge or Collison get hurt, he can always be called up from Tulsa.

I don’t know enough about Jones to really gauge where his confidence is but lots of young players lose confidence when they get drafted well below where they were expected to be taken. Of course, there are exceptions. Rashard Lewis and Deandre Jordan come to mind. But getting big minutes and success on the D league level could wind up being what’s best in the long run for him. 

  • 4)      With other teams making significant moves to get better (Lakers acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash / Miami acquiring Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis), is there any way that the Thunder got better without making any major moves? 

NTTB: I think we’ll get better organically because of our youth, but the line on the organic improvement line graph is probably starting to plateau. There’s probably not much more that these guys can do, besides averaging a triple double for a season, that would register as far as team improvement goes. Getting Perry Jones III in the draft negated any necessity to obtain a scoring big. I expect the Thunder to be a big player after the trading deadline, though, for a veteran big man.

WTLC: Well, we got better in the sense that we’ll have another year under our belts to develop. How much that will translate into next year remains to be seen. The Thunder were really sputtering late in the season, dropping a lot of winnable matchups and letting non-playoff teams come back from huge deficits. But when you get right down to it, the Thunder have the talent to beat the Heat and the Lakers. What they need to do is come up with more creative solutions for their obvious flaws.

But on a tangible level, there is improvement in sight. Cole Aldrich might be more of an offensive threat than Nazr Mohammed was, and he was working on a hook shot while in the Summer League. Kendrick Perkins will be fully recovered from his injury. Eric Maynor will be returning, offering a steady offense and a refreshing break from Derek Fishers’ 0fers and terrible defense. Serge Ibaka’s jumpers are getting come consistent. And, of course, James Harden will have had the experience of being on a boat.

MTB: I think the Thunder got better just based on the fact that their star players haven’t hit their prime years yet. It’s rare that All star caliber players take a step back before they hit their prime so I see the Thunder getting better via the internal improvement route. 

  • 5)      Are the Thunder now this season’s participant in the reality show drama known as the “player vs team negotiation” game that the media will incessantly babble about for possibly the next 300 days?

 NTTB: I don’t think so. There are two players out in LA that will be causing a bigger stir with their impending free agency (Dwight Howard and Chris Paul). Plus, the Thunder organization is very hierarchal in nature, and if the top (owner Clay Bennett and GM Sam Presti) remains quiet, you can bet the bottom (players and coaches) will remain quiet. This will not be an issue at all this season. It wasn’t an issue when Westbrook’s extension was in play and it won’t be an issue with Harden’s being in play.   

WTLC: Yes, 100 times yes. If there’s one thing the media love to babble on about, its’ contract negotiations. Nevermind the fact that the Thunder are a title threat now, what are we going to do when Kevin Durant comes off of contract in 2016?! Aye aye aye. Just bring on the basketball, man. I’ll worry about the size of James Harden’s penthouse later. 

MTB: I sincerely hope not. I’m really hoping that Presti and Harden’s representation can just come out and say that they will table negotiations until next summer. That will take the media out of the picture and will simultaneously take the pressure of Harden. Let’s see what type of numbers he can put up and then negotiate a contract based on production.

In conclusion…..one more week!!!!!!!

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.

Let’s Not Get All Defensive Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!!!!!!

 

Occupy NBA: How Twitter helped the fans have a voice in this lockout.

In watching some of the pointless Occupy ____(insert city)____ protests that have gone on for the past month and a half, I have sometimes wondered what it would look like if NBA fans staged their own Occupy NBA protest during the lockout. Would we march at the hotel that the players’ union and owners were meeting at in New York? Or at NBA HQ in New York? Or at the court house in Minnesota where the anti-trust lawsuits would be taking place at? Instead of hippies and out of work yuppies, I could see a whole bunch of middle-aged men with their basketball jerseys on, dribbling basketballs throughout the parking lot. I could see young men trucking in portable goals and holding 3 on 3 tournaments in protest of the lockout. I could see someone bringing out a boombox and jamming to John Tesh’s Roundball Rock. But alas, that takes too much time and money to protest like that, and NBA fans have to do something to pay for the season tickets and NBA League Pass that they have. Instead, NBA fans protested in a new manner. They took their protesting to Twitter. And you know what, it actually had an impact. 

Twitter and the NBA is a match made in heaven. In all of the sport leagues, NBA players are the most accessible. They don’t wear helmets so it’s easy to see and recognize the players. They don’t have heavy armor on, so it’s easy for fans to try and dissect the meaning of their tattoos and get deeper into the psyche of that player. Because of this, NBA fans develop more of a connection, whether real or fantasized, with players than do the fans of other sports leagues. I love the Oklahoma Sooners football team, but I couldn’t pick their center, Ben Habern, out of a lineup if I tried. But I could recognize Minnesota’s back up center (Nikola Pekovic) in a crowded mall if I saw him. 

Another thing that is instantly recognizable about the NBA and its players through Twitter, is that they are all friends. The basketball culture is completely different than the football culture and the baseball culture. Because these players have been playing together in AAU and cross country camps for the better part of their high school careers, there develops a strong common bond that unites these players together as they move on in their respective basketball journeys. And it becomes very apparent on Twitter, as players from different teams communicate with each other more often then they they probably do with their own mothers. 

When you add the fact that fans can now actually communicate with your favorite players, that brings NBA fandom to another level. So, it was only a matter of time before NBA fans would take to Twitter to a) express their displeasure with the lockout or b) express their support to the players. Most players dismissed anything the fans said, but some players, Thunder center Nazr Mohammed, in particular, took to the Twitter-waves to quell any misunderstandings and explain to fans exactly what the players had given up and why they were fighting so hard. For a while, this actually worked in the players’ favor, as they were getting most of the public sentiment. But as the lockout dragged on, fans, and even some players, grew more and more frustrated, and took to the Twitter-waves to express that angst. 

But not only were fans and players able to use Twitter to express their feelings, basketball sportswriters also became primetime commodities during the lockout, especially when there was a meeting between the two sides happening. What used to be interesting tidbits that would appear in books written 10 years after an event, became instant news once it happens (i.e. Dwayne Wade’s blow-up against David Stern, Stern going home with the flu, Michael Jordan going all Scarface on the players that adored him and playing “the bad guy”, the players’ “STAND” shirts, etc.). Howard Beck, David Aldridge, Marc Stein, Larry Coon, and Chris Sheridan all became my new best friends every time the two sides had one of their meetings. These sportswriters provided a riveting play by play of legal negotiations as they were happening. They gave the back drops to what was going on, like who stepped out and why they stepped out. I, for one, took it all in. I was entranced by these negotiations and found myself almost wanting the lockout to continue so that I could “hear” the play by play of the negotiations by the sportswriters. Plus it was fun to hear FalseHoop and his followers come up with #ReasonsForLongLockoutMeeting. 

This all led to instant fan reaction. There was no need for sportswriters to put up surveys or take polls. The pulse of the fans was on full display, live and direct, with their tweets of displeasure and support. After each meeting that ended in disappointment, the pulse of the fans became more and more frustrated. Even worse for the NBA, some of the fans were becoming more and more apathetic. Don’t discount for a second the impact this had on Stern and the owners. With all the talk of a nuclear winter, the NBA did not want to turn into the NHL and have to play games on ION or SiTV when they came back a year or two later. Instead, they went back to the table, made a couple concessions, made the players feel better, and came to an agreement. And guess where I heard it first…….on Twitter.

Wu-Tang vs. OKC Thunder

 

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If you are like me, you are growing tired of the weekly late night sessions by the players’ union and owners. The meetings always seem to start off with a hint of hope, only to be crushed when we finally see the sides emerge into their separate press conferences after the meeting. Its almost like getting set up on a blind date. The anticipation builds, you’ve heard all the good reviews from your friends, and then when you see her, she looks like a close up shot from one of the Ren and Stimpy cartoons.

When I started this blog, I intended it to be solely an OKC Thunder blog. But as is the case with many of my ventures, my AOADD (adult onset attention deficit disorder) won’t allow me to concentrate on just one aspect of something. I have to try to encompass everything about that subject. Since the Thunder are a part of the NBA, and the NBA, as a whole, is the story of the moment, I’ve kind of shifted my writings from strictly Thunder subjects to more NBA (read:lockout) subjects. But I’ve decided, enough with all this lockout madness (for now). While there isn’t much to write about since there is a lockout, there is no better time than the present to start using the creative side of my brain. I mean, I am a lefty, so we are supposed to be more in tune with the creative, artistic part of our brain. Key word being “supposed to be”.

When there was an NBA season with some Thunder games, we constantly heard about the sacred 9-man rotation. That rotation sometimes got bumped up to a 10-man rotation when everyone was healthy, but usually stayed at the comfortable number of 9. Now, I bring this up, because my favorite rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, consists of 9 core members (generals) but also, usually, includes an extra 1-2 associated rappers that round things out (you know, in case someone dies or gets arrested, which is the sports equivalent of someone being injured (arrested) or out for the season (dead)). I’ve always associated the Thunder’s 9-man rotation with the Wu’s 9 generals and thought it would be fun to do a comparative piece about the 2 groups.

Before I get started, let me introduce you to the Wu-Tang Clan if you are not a fan of rap or were born before 1975. The Wu is a 9-man rap group from Staten Island NY consisting of the RZA, the GZA/Genius, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa. In addition, Cappadonna and Streetlife usually appear on the group’s albums and are considered unofficial members of the group. The unique thing about this group is that even though each rapper has his own style, they usually mesh seamlessly on their group albums to produce good music.

The RZA is……….Russell Westbrook. The RZA is usually the main and only producer on the group albums. He’s the one that makes the beats and arranges the album. He would be akin to a table-setter where the rest of the rappers just put their platters (rhymes) on said table. He’s the creator, just like Russell is the creator on the floor. While not as wildly popular as other members of the group, the RZA is very well known and respected in the entainment industry. Which almost sounds a lot like Russell Westbrook. While not the most popular on the team nationally, he is well respected by most and shows the potential to be an alpha dog on most teams.

Method Man is………Kevin Durant. Method Man is, by far, the most popular member of the Wu. His witty, humerous lines and strong cadence make him an easy rapper to follow and like. He’s also the first of the group to try other ventures such as acting (How High, anyone?) and directing. His charismatic personality and sense of humor makes it very easy for him to gain mass appeal. This relates very well to Kevin Durant. Without a question, the most popular player on the Thunder, KD is the unquestioned offensive leader of this team. At the same time, his affable personality and yeoman-like work ethic make it very easy for people to relate to him and admire him. In terms of production, everyone wants to see KD perform, just like everybody at a Wu concert wants to see Meth perform.

GZA/Genius is ………. Nick Collison. The veteran of the group, he’s the one that is always consistent with his flow. He never gets too high or too low. You know with the Genius what you are going to get every time out. Same thing with Collison. The veteran leader of this young crew, he keeps an even keel and you usually know what he’s going to provide night in and night out. And just like Collison is our no-stats MVP, if you ask any Wu fan who there no-stats MVP is, they would say it’s the GZA.

Ghostface Killah is……… James Harden. A mystery when the group first came on the scene, Ghost has come along as probably the 2nd most productive emcee of the group. Constantly working, he has carved out his own niche and has a huge following in the rap industry. With his witty word-play and rapid fire delivery, Ghost has made himself into a heavy-weight in the rap game. As our first lottery pick, Harden’s arrival on our team provided a bit of mystery. Would he supplant Thabo Sefolosha as the starting SG? Or would he be our main offensive weapon off the bench? Honestly, those questions are still a mystery 3 years in. But, Harden has acclimated himself very well in the league and is well on his way to becoming one of the top SG’s in the game.

Raekwon is……….Serge Ibaka. Raekwon is a lunch pail rapper. He puts in his work and goes home. When it comes to a rap group of 9, not everybody can rap on every song. But the guy that puts in the most work and has appeared on the most songs is definitely Rae. His ability to tell stories in rhyme form are what set him apart. Serge is one of the harder workers on the team, especially on the defensive end of the floor. His ability to guard the paint have made him a menace to opposing teams. Plus, his journey to the NBA is a great story that should be told.

Inspectah Deck is……….. Eric Maynor. Deck is the ultimate glue guy on the Wu-Tang roster. His verses can sometimes blow you away, but they can also, at times, leave you underwhelmed. This describes Eric Maynor at this point in his career. There are times where Maynor’s play leaves you awestruck and salivating for more (Game 2 of the WCF’s), but then there are games where you wonder if Maynor will ever shed the “back-up” tag.

U-God is……….Thabo Sefolosha. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Uey. He brings some rough and rugged raps that hype you up. But his cadence and word play sometimes leave you wanting more. Which brings up to Thabo Sefolosha. Sef is primarily a great defensive player, but leaves you wanting a lot on the offensive end. He sometimes has a gem of a game, but he usually stays in the background and doesn’t add much other than defense.

Masta Killa is……..Kendrick Perkins. Were you really expecting anyone else to be compared with a guy who goes by the name of Masta Killa? Mostly a witty battle rapper, MK is usually good to drop a verse that will get the crowd hyped, but loses himself when he tries to venture into autobiographical or story-telling lyrics. If you want someone on the team to go to battle with, who else would you choose other than Perk? He’s our intimidator and presence on the interior. When he tries to do anything else other than be an intimidator, he usually ends up getting himself and the team in trouble.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard is ………..Nate Robinson and Reggie Jackson. The only guy in the group crazy enough to have two players compared to him. Before his death, ODB was the resident idiot savant of the group. Someone who rapped in outlandish ways, but somehow, it made sense in an ODB kind of way. In a room full of hyped rappers, he’s the one that brought the energy. To that respect, he’s very much like Nate Robinson. Watching Nate cheer the team on from the bench is a joy to watch as a spectator. The energy derived from him has to account for at least an extra 0.2 points per game. But ODB was also a mystery. As much information as he put out to his public, there was always an air of mystery surrounding Dirt McGirt. Which brings us to our 2011 draft pick, Reggie Jackson. What can this guy bring to the table for us? Based on his tools and style of play, he seems like a poor man’s Russell Westbrook. But will he play that way once the season starts?

Cappadonna is ………..Daequan Cook. Cappadonna is the Wu-Tang Clan’s unofficial 10th member. He usually on every album, but also fills in to form the core 9 whenever one of the members is missing (see: ODB’s incarceration and ODB’s death). Like Cappa, Daequan is our official 9th or 10th member off the bench. He does his job, and tries his hardest not to get in the way.

Streetlife is ………Nazr Mohammed. Streetlife is a protégés of Method Man who has found a niche as the Wu’s unofficial 11th member. He’s appeared on most Wu-related albums and comes up with very energetic verses. While not very energetic, Nazr does provide some scoring up in the post off the bench that sometimes comes in very handy.

The Wu-Tang Clan have been going strong in the rap business for almost 20 years now. They’ve had their ups and downs. They’ve faced triumphs and tragedies. But through it all, they’ve remained together. I know that sports teams will never remain together for that long, but if there is a suitable sports equivalent (> 7 years?), I would hope that the Thunder can achieve that and be successful in the process.

Seeds of Discord

There are two reasons for sending out a state of the union letter. The first reason is to inform your constituents of your progress and where you stand as a whole. This is the reason the President holds a State of the Union address at least 2 – 3 times a year. It allows the citizens to be a part of the process/progress. The second reason to send out a State of the Union letter to quell any feelings of discord or doubt. The back to back letters sent out by union President Derek Fisher and Executive Director Billy Hunter on consecutive days should be seen as more of a plead for unity than an informational guide to the progress/process of the labor negotiations.

 In surprising fashion, the most important person in these labor negotiations has become FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock. His article about Derek Fisher’s backdoor wheelings and dealings has sent the player’s union into a damage control frenzy. Stephen A. Smith has also said that what Whitlock wrote in his article is basically true. If anything, even if this story is not entirely true, there still is some truth to it. Unfortunately, the seeds of discord have already been spread and the damage has been done.

Within the past 24 hours, the divide between players has become very evident. This morning, Boston Celtics free agent Glen “Big Baby” Davis tweeted , “Take the 51% man and let’s play.” Houston Rockets swingman Terrance Williams tweeted, “Hey @TheNBPA Let’s play BALL enough with the stare off”. Recent reports have said that Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant have both indicated that they would take a 50/50 split. On the other side of things, Oklahoma City Thunder big man Nazr Mohammed tweeted, “Since I have @NBA & @NBA_Labor’s ear…Why can’t y’all come up to 52.5% since we already gave in 100’s of millions & on system issues?” A later tweet by Mohammed stated, “Don’t know what the percentage will be but I’m willing to #StandUnited with my union cuz players b4 me did it when I was a rookie. #OnlyFair”.

Another thing that lends credence to the fact that there may be discord among Fisher and Hunter is what’s at stake for both of them. Hunter’s legacy is on the line as this seems to be his last hurrah as union Executive Director. He may be reelected to lead the union into their next labor negotiations in 6 – 10 years, but with how much the union has given up in these negotiations, that does not seem so certain. Hunter is trying to get the best deal possible (52.5%) to lessen the blow the owners are trying to place on the players. On the other hand, Derek Fisher is still a player, and at the bottom of his core, probably wants to do everything possible to get this thing done and play ball. Fisher is on his last leg as far as his playing career is concerned and the Lakers are still one of the favorites to contend for a championship.

It is pretty fascinating to see the middle to lower tier younger players start to bite their nails at the prospect of missing paychecks, while the older veteran players (who have, more than likely, been saving up for this day) are pressuring all the players to stay united and stay the course. Add to that, the dialoging in the media by the NHL players who suffered through a lost season and a lost season’s worth of pay, while coming out on the other side of the lockout in a much worse position than when the lockout started.

The cracks and fissures are starting to become chasms. The quiet whisper of discord is starting to become a booming roar. Eventually the person with the most money, usually wins the battle. The owners are billionaires whose income is not solely dependant on the ownership of their teams. The players, on the other hand, are completely dependent on the paycheck that comes from playing the game of basketball. The most important meeting of this labor negotiation has yet to occur. Many people think the most important meetings of this labor negotiation happened within the last two weeks. The truth is that the most important meeting of these labor negotiations will come on Thursday, when the players’ union meets to discuss their next plan of attack.