Tag Archives: Oklahoma City

Teenage Mutant Ninja Thunder

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One of the greatest things about fatherhood is the ability to relive your childhood without having to feel one ounce of guilt or embarrassment. For example, when I was coming up, I grew up on the Street……Sesame Street, that is. So when my kids started reaching the age of noticing the moving objects on the television screen, one of the first things I put on the tube for them was Sesame Street. I would watch it with them and sing along, all while reminiscing about my own childhood. After growing too old for the Street, I progressed to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That was my fad until my cousin showed me some shoes with the insignia of a man flying through the air with a basketball in his extended left hand and his legs spread apart. It was all over for cartoons after that.

Eventually, kids develop their own individual likes and drop old favorites into the dusty corners of their long term memory. So, it was a complete surprise to me when my kids were looking through the DVD collection and grabbed my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Season 1 DVD and said they wanted to watch it. So, of course, we sat down and watched it and they LOVED it. Luckily, Nickelodeon was coming out with a new Ninja Turtles series themselves, so it fit in with them nicely. Now they (and myself) are all about the Turtles. I watch the new cartoon with them on Saturday mornings (I know, I didn’t know Saturday morning cartoons existed anymore, either) and we sometimes have matches where I’m the Shredder and they take turns beating me with weapons (bruises go away, memories don’t).

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So, as I’m watching this new Ninja Turtles series, I can’t help but make comparisons to another team in my life, namely the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you’ve never seen or heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, let me give you a real quick overview. Four mutated turtles with humanoid features fight evil from their backdrop of their sewer lair where they are trained in ninjutsu by a mutated humanoid rat. The rat and turtles share a father/sons relationship, with the turtles coming into their teenage years. Hence, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, each turtle has his own personality traits, which lends to the parental struggles of Splinter, their rat sensei. Along with their human friends, April O’Neal and Casey Jones, they form a team and battle different foes.

This is not very different from any other professional team: different personalities all coming together to battle one common opponent. And that’s where I thought the similarities between the Ninja Turtles and the Oklahoma City Thunder crossed-over. The personality traits of the characters are very similar to the personality traits of some of the main component of the Thunder. So without further ado….

The Good Guys

Leonardo is Kevin Durant – The unquestioned leader of the Turtles, Leonardo is an apt pupil and the apple of Splinter’s eyes. He exhibits strong leadership qualities, but also struggles in keeping harmony with all the different personalities on his team. Part of leadership is ability, and Leonardo is a master at the martial arts. Similarly, Kevin Durant is the unquestioned leader of the Thunder. Though words may not be his tool of choice, Durant’s actions on the court often dictate how his teammates react.

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Raphael is Russell Westbrook – Was there ever really any question? I mean, if there is anyone in the cartoon world that fits Westbrook to a tee, it is Raphael. Raphael is the hot head of the group. He has the most attitude in comparison to the other turtles, but also has the most swag (confidence, if you don’t speak street). He’s good and he knows it. His quick temperedness can be a detriment as it clouds his judgment. Part of the reason for Raphael’s hot temper, though, is that he cares too much about situations and about others around him. Westbrook, the volatile point guard for the Thunder, and their unquestioned second in command, has always toed the line between beauty and disaster. He has an unwavering confidence in himself that can lead to astonishing displays of awe or to frustrating learning moments that leave you shaking your head. While many question his motives, those who are in tune with the Thunder know that Westbrook does the things that he does because all he cares about is winning. The bottom line, not individual stats, are the most important thing for Westbrook.

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Donatello is Kevin Martin – Donatello is the scientific brains behind the whole operation. He’s mild-mannered and spends his free time building gizmos and gadgets for his turtle brethren that will be used in combat. He’s an adept fighter, but his intelligence is his biggest asset. Kevin Martin is probably one of the smartest offensive basketball players in the NBA in terms of floor spacing and angle awareness. His high basketball IQ help him find spaces on the floor where he can launch his automatic jumper. His mellow demeanor only masked the trained assassin that lurks inside the No. 23 jersey.

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Michelangelo is Serge Ibaka – Believe me, this was probably the most difficult one. Michelangelo is the fun-loving, “life of the party” of the turtle quartet. He’s very innocent and young-minded, and tends to see the good in everything. But he’s also very loyal and willing to fight for what he considers important (namely, family). Before the trade, James Harden was a shoo-in for the role of Michelangelo. But with Harden’s departure, Serge Ibaka becomes the representative for Michelangelo. He’s a fun loving guy who was probably very innocent and young-minded to the ways of the United States when he first got here. Now that’s he adjusted, though, he is the life of the party (well, parties with a lot of women in them). Due to his rough upbringing, he probably sees the positive in many things in life. But mess with his team (family), and you’ll have something else coming to you.

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Splinter is Scott Brooks – Splinter is the sensei (teacher) of the turtles. He is much older than them and acts as their father figure. He is a mutated rat that has humanoid features. He has raised them from young turtles to where they are today, extolling values and morals onto them. He is ultra-protective of them, but like any parent of a teenager, knows that he must let up a bit to allow the turtles to explore the world on their own. Five years ago, Scott Brooks was tasked with taking an extremely young team, that had known nothing but losing. Through his teachings (“play defense with your heart”, “push it, push it, push it, “we’re not out of this”) the Thunder have improved upon themselves every season and are now one of the best teams in the league.

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April O’Neal is Wanda Pratt – April is the human liaison for the Turtles. Since the NBA still does not have any female players (enter joke here about NBA player X whom you think is a female), super fan/mother Wanda Pratt would have to do for this comparison. She cheers on the team that her son plays for and treats them all like her kids.

 

Casey Jones is Kendrick Perkins – Casey Jones is a male character in the series that is a vigilante and sometimes fights with the Turtles. He carries an assortment of weapons, such as hockey sticks and baseball bats, and wears a mask. If weapons were allowed on the court, Kendrick Perkins would probably be carrying the biggest bag. Thankfully, all he has on the court is his Scowl Mask. But like Casey Jones, he will extol justice whenever necessary.

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The Bad Guys

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Shredder is Lebron James – The Shredder is the Turtle’s biggest enemy. He is a lifelong foe of Splinter, and would like nothing more than to destroy the Turtles and Splinter. Even though, Kevin Durant and Lebron James are all buddy-buddy off the court, there is no doubt in my mind that James is our biggest obstacle from attaining our prize. Like the Shredder, James has become ruthless when the game is on the line and is starting to come up big when it matters.

The Foot Clan are the Miami Heat – The ninja army put together by the Shredder. Need I say more how this relates to the Miami Heat. When you face Lebron, you also have to face The Foot.

 

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Krang is Gregg Popovich – Krang is an alien brain that brought technology from space to help the Shredder and his sinister plan. Extremely intelligent and cunning, Krang is only limited by a lack of a body. Gregg Popovich has only one thing on his mind…and that is winning. No matter what he has to do. Rest all his starters on a nationally televised game against the Foot Clan (Heat), and absorb a $250,000 fine? Check. Play rookies when other contenders wouldn’t even mess with young players? Check. Extremely meticulous, he details every plan and plans for every detail.

 

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Bebop and Rocksteady are Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – Bebop and Rocksteady are the evil mutant equivalent to the Turtles. A wart hog mutant and a rhino mutant, they punish objects using their physicality and brute strength. Gasol and Randolph are probably the best big man duo in the league and do not lack for size.

Tokka and Rahzar are Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol – The movie (Hollywood) equivalent to Bebop and Rocksteady, these guys were also very physically imposing, but were very intellectually limited. While not intellectually limited, the Lakers’ record with Howard and Gasol manning the middle is currently very limiting.

Baxter Stockman is Mike D’antoni – Stockman, a brilliant scientist, is transformed into a humanoid fly after a mutagen accident. D’antoni, a brilliant offensive strategist, was transformed into the Lakers’ head coach after the firing of Mike Brown. So far, the results have been a underwhelming, with a 4-7 start.

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If you are reading this and are over the age of 35, I can understand if this may seem foreign to you. But remember any of your favorites quartets growing up (the O’Jays, the Beatles, the Four Horseman, the Seinfeld crew, etc.), and you’ll realize that the different personalities/talents actually made the whole better than the individual parts. Cartoons never seem to have a finality to them because the writers want to keep the story arcs going. But if I were to write the ending for the Thunder this season, it would end with a Western Conference playoff run that sees us vanquishing the Lakers, Spurs, and Grizzlies. Then, it would culminate with the Thunder defeating the Heat in 7 games in OKC, and the networks renewing us for another season.

….The More They Remain The Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Harden’s Opus

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

Wow #Harden

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

Here are the details from the trade:

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

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

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

The Ugly

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

WWJD – What would James do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trade and the Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

 In Memoriam

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

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!!!!!!!

The Harden Conundrum

I have a friend that currently finds himself at a crossroads in life. Now, before I continue, let me give a little background of my friend. He moved into town about 5 years ago right out of law school. He was from a bigger city, but decided to start a law office in a smaller town to avoid the oversaturation of law offices in the bigger cities. He started the law firm with one of his old law school classmates, who was already in the area working as a public defender. After struggling for a couple years, they finally started building a good clientele portfolio from in and around town. Besides his job, my friend also began laying down roots in the community, marrying a local girl and becoming a recognized lawyer in the area. With that recognition, comes opportunities, of which, some were not local.

Now, I’ll keep my friend nameless, because I am privy to his finances. Due to them having their own business, much of their profits go to operational costs. My friend currently pays himself a salary of $65,000; enough to get by pretty well in the small town. As his clientele portfolio has expanded, he has increased his salary by $2000 every year since he began. He recently got a job offer from a law firm in a bigger city that would start him off at $100,000 with the opportunity to be a partner within a year of accepting the job.

My friend’s partner has started his own attack to keep my friend by his side. He has started pulling on my friend’s heartstrings, telling him that they can be the best law office in the area if they continue what they started; telling him that he is like the brother he never had; and even said he would increase his salary to $78,000 to prevent him from leaving. So this is where my friend finds himself: an opportunity to go to a major law firm and be a major player in the future or stay behind based on loyalty to continue building something that he started.

What would you do?

Before you answer, realize that there is no wrong answer. When it comes to financial decisions, you always decide with one of the two things: your heart or your wallet. Sometimes those two things are homogenous, making decisions extremely easy. But sometimes, those two things are at war, making the decision that much tougher. But in the end, you make your decision and live with it. Like I told my friend, people will always judge, but the only judges that matter are the ones at home and, more importantly,  the one in the mirror.

Would you fault this person for whatever decision they make?

I would hope that most people wouldn’t. When we are talking about money in the $50,000 – $100,000 range, we see a lot of ourselves in those dollar amounts, and know how we would side. In my friend’s case, he was debating between $100K and $78K. In this economy, many people would take the money and hope that the extra 22% would cushion the homesick feeling that sometimes accompanies a job-related move. And yet, when those figures move from $100,000 to $63 million, sports fans feel completely sickened by the fact that an athlete would choose the money over the team.

James Harden, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, currently finds himself in a boat similar to the one my friend is in. In a year, he could take the money and sign a max 4 year/$63 million contract with another team. Or, he could take less money (possibly as low as the $49 million Serge Ibaka extended for) to stay with the tightly-knit, championship-contending team he has help build from the foundation up. We, sports fans, are sometimes so myopic in our thinking, that we don’t realize the difference in money between my friend’s two offers and James Harden’s two possible offers are the same in terms of percentage (22%).

Would you ever leave 22% of your possible future income on the table?

Think about that. How ecstatic would you be if your job offered you a 22% raise tomorrow? I don’t know if there is a sound proof room insulated enough to not hear my screams of joy if that happened. And yet, sports fans like to believe they are above reproach and would always choose loyalty over money. And let’s not argue over the semantics of thousands versus millions. Most people in our salary range would like to think they can live just fine off of one million dollars per year. But if you had the opportunity to choose between $63 million and $49 million, would you really leave $14 million on the table? Forty nine million dollars can help you and children. Fourteen more can help your grandchildren. Money is money. The more you have, the better off you usually are.

 

I know James Harden’s heart is currently at war with his wallet. He has stated that he loves the city, loves the team, and hopes to continue building a possible dynasty with his brothers. He even intimated that he is willing to take less money, but, recently has backed off of that statement. When you don’t know what you are worth, you make statements like that. But when you realize what your market value is, your wallet (agent) starts to do the talking. I won’t fault Harden if he runs and takes the money. In an occupation where you are an injury away from not earning another paycheck, you take what you can, when you can. If the stories of my friend and James Harden are parallel, then we Thunder fans better enjoy the Bearded One as much as we can this season.

Thunderstruck:The Review

There’s a saying that goes musicians and actors want to be athletes, and athletes want to be musicians and actors. Call it what you may; a mutual respect for each others’ crafts or the need to test one’s self. But when that person ventures into the other crafts, the results are usually forgettable and regrettable. We see how entertainers perform in celebrity basketball games. The basketball players in those games, almost always retired players, have to play at 50% just to make the game even a little bit enjoyable. Basketball players are born to play basketball. While some try other ventures, they rarely achieve the success known to them on the basketball court. When it comes to music, many ball players have tried, but only two have had any form of success: Wayman Tisdale, who went on to become a world renowned bass player, and Shaquille O’Neal, who, regardless of what you think of his skills as a rapper, released 4 studio albums, with one going gold, and another going platinum.

When it comes to basketball players and acting, the list of successes is even smaller. The greatest role for an athlete is as an athlete, especially if they are playing themselves. If you take them outside of that element, the results are extremely varied with a very high “hit or miss” potential. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did a great job as co-pilot Roger Murdock on Airplane. John Salley did a good job in his small role as Fletcher, the computer hacker, on the two Bad Boys films. Outside of those two roles, I can’t really think of a successful acting venture for a basketball player that does not involve dribbling a basketball.

Now, if the role involves playing a little basketball, then the athlete can go ahead and ease into his comfort zone. Shaq’s best acting role was as Neon Boudeaux, the “out-of-nowhere” star recruit in the movie ‘Blue Chips’. Honestly, though, that’s not really saying much when compared to such classics as ‘Kazaam’ and ‘Steel’, but you get the picture. When an athlete is able to do the thing that comes naturally to them, it makes the unnatural thing (acting) come that much easier. So when I heard that Kevin Durant was starring in his own movie, I was a little worried to say the least. He wasn’t a big personality like Shaq was in his heyday, and his advertisement portfolio, while growing, wasn’t necessarily anything that would indicate we had a burgeoning thespian on our hands. Also, when I heard the synopsis of the film, basically ‘Like Mike, part 8,’ I was a bit concerned that the cheesiness factor would be too much.

With all that said, I thought this would be a good RedBox rental in a couple of months. Then, out of the (Thunder) blue, my ticket rep called me asking if I wanted to attend the red carpet premiere of KD’s movie. Like any good Hollywood socialite, I told him I would have to check my schedule. Two seconds later, I told him I would go, and I would be bringing 5 guests with me (my entourage).

So, when the day came, we all got suited up and made our way to the premiere. We got there about an hour and a half early and watched as they vacuumed the red carpet. I vacuum my carpet all the time, but this was a RED carpet. Awesome, to say the least. We finally got our tickets and walked into the theatre, on the newly vacuumed red carpet. After getting our popcorn and drinks, we waited for the VIP’s to arrive.

First through the red carpet was the always lovable Rumble, in a tux only a bison could wear. He, of course, had two Thunder girls draped on his arms. When I die, I want to come back as a hooved mascot. They get all the perks. Next up, it was the always exquisite Wanda Pratt, who rocked her aquamarine dress to a tee. “You go girl!” was all I could think in my mind. Mama Durant basically became part of the family as she bear hugged my sister twice on her walk down the red carpet. At that very moment, I turned around and legendary Oklahoma Sooners coach Barry Switzer was behind me about to walk into the theatre.

Co-star Taylor Gray was the next one through the red carpet. I didn’t really know who he was, but all the pre-teen girls knew who he was. So, I figured he was somebody in the film. Then, the love child of Marty McFly and Breckin Meyer walked through the red carpet. Its always good to see Coach Scott Brooks in his offseason’s best, hair and beard both grown out. Finally, the star of the film came through. Kevin Durant looked dashing as ever in his brownish checkered vest and black undershirt, completely owning the red carpet. After a small introduction by the director of the film, it was finally time to see some movie magic.

Without giving too much away in this review, I initially went into the film wondering how many cringe-worthy, cheesy moments there would be in the film. Brian (Taylor Gray) is a high school student who has aspirations of playing basketball, but is only good enough to be the water boy on the team. A huge fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brian gets a chance to shoot a half court shot at halftime of a game. His shot falls way short, hitting Rumble on the head, and he ends up in the tunnel with Kevin Durant, who sympathizes with the kid and signs a ball for him. As he is handing the ball to Brian, his basketball skills are transferred to Brian in a weird cosmic mix up. The teenager ends up joining the basketball team and becoming its star, while Durant struggles with having the skills of a water boy.

Through his struggles, Durant’s agent, Alan (Brandon T. Jackson), keeps looking for reasons and solutions to Durant’s dismal slump. He finally sees a mirror of Durant’s talent in this scrawny little high school kid and realizes that Durant’s talent must have been stolen. Alan approaches Brian and levels with him about his new found talent. Brian soon realizes that Alan is right and must decide whether he wants to continue with his new found fame or do the right thing and find a way to return Durant’s talents back.

Are there some corny moments in his film? Of course. But, to my surprise, there weren’t any cringe-worthy, “I’m too old for this crap” moments. The surprising comedic performances of Jim Belushi, as the coach of the high school team, and Doc Shaw, as Brian’s best friend, provide enough comedy to keep you laughing out loud from time to time. Taylor Gray actually carries the movie pretty well as the lead actor, and Kevin Durant does a good job as Kevin Durant. John  Whitesell, the director, does a good job of showing off Durant’s strength (basketball ability), while not trying to overdo his still burgeoning acting ability.

For what I was expecting, this movie turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It had a good flow to it and didn’t lull you in the middle of the movie. My kids, 7 and 5 years old, loved it, and it held their interest throughout the entire movie. A solid ‘B’ in my book and a highly recommendable family movie.

Summer League: Hope Springs Eternal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A BIG Thank You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Was All A Dream

“It was all a dream…” The opening line to “Juicy”, one of the greatest rap songs ever written. Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s opening salvo into our collective consciousness was, perhaps, the greatest conveyment of a musical rags-to-riches story. Great things always have a way of starting off small. Facebook started off as a social network for only Ivy League students and had the word ‘the’ in its original title. Microsoft started off as two friends who were great computer programmers. The Oklahoma City Thunder started off as a 23 win franchise that was in the running to be the worst team in league history for much of the season. But, oh, how things have changed. 

From a fan’s perspective, this was a celebration of the Thunder’s first trip to the NBA Finals. From the outside, this just looked like the finality of a four year run that started off very slow, but has been on a uphill trek ever since. But from the inside, this wasn’t just about the last 4 years. That collective cheer that you heard from the Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 06, 2012 at about 10:30 PM was a roar of passion. Passion, not only for the team, but for the state. A roar for ourselves. Not for each collective ‘me’, but instead, for the collective ‘we’. 

 When you are from Oklahoma, you always hark back to THAT day. April 19, 1995. The day innocence was ripped from the hearts of Oklahomans of all ages. The day we learned about evil and heartbreak. But, on April 20, 1995, we got up and started using a new vernacular. We started to live by words like RESILIENCY, COMMUNITY, SACRIFICE, TOGETHER, HUMILITY, HARDWORK. We knew the trek ahead was tough, but we knew it was a trek we would take together. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, 4 years later, the city was struck by what has been called the Monster of all tornadoes. An F5 tornado with multiple vortices, ripped through the southern part of Oklahoma City, destroying the suburb of Moore, Ok and the city of Bridge Creek, Ok. Once again, probably because of the hard lessons learned from the Murrah Building Bombing, we knew how to react to this tragedy and pulled together.  

City leaders, construction workers, politicians, and citizens all stepped up to the plate to improve the namesake city of the state. What was once a warehouse district was transformed into a sprawling entertainment district in the span of 20 years. With those improvements, came a 20,000 seat indoor sports arena originally known as the Ford Center. This would become the hub of our professional sports dream. 

Of course, with any dream, there are obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the ultimate goal. First, was the fact that we were the 44th largest TV market in the United States. While that sounds great in comparing it to the other 25,000 cities in the United States, that doesn’t bode well for any professional sports league looking for an expansion city. Secondly, was that fact that the professional sports leagues weren’t necessarily looking to expand at that time. The NBA last expanded in 2004, MLB in 1998, NFL in 2002, and the NHL in 2000. 

There’s a saying that goes, “When opportunities comes a’knocking, you better open the door.” When the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina happened in September 2005, the New Orleans Hornets were left with no place to play and hardly a populance to play for. Looking to lend a helping hand AND prove our worth as a big league city, Mayor Mick Cornett and city officials lobbied the NBA’s front office for the opportunity to host the Hornets for as long as necessary. While initially down playing the idea, the NBA decided to give Oklahoma City this opportunity of a lifetime and allow the Hornets to play at the Ford Center for what would eventually become 2 seasons. 

And Oklahoma City proved its worth, quickly growing a reputation as one of the loudest fan bases in the league for its adopted team. For those two seasons, the Hornets became synonymous with having a distinct home court advantage. It became OKC’s first foray into professional sports. Chris Paul won Rookie of the Year in his first season in OKC and David West became a burgeoning All-Star. Tyson Chandler became known as one of the best defensive big men in the league and Peja Stojakovic became known as one of the biggest free agency busts in his one season in OKC. And after two seasons, the music stopped. 

It was a bit disappointing when the Hornets left. Its like being in a 2-year relationship with someone that still had ties to their ex, and then being single again when your significant other goes back to their ex. We always knew the Hornets were going back to New Orleans, but the hope of them some how staying in OKC long-term was still in the back of most our minds. But this was no time to hold our heads down. Their was another opportunity to be had, and another team in the horizon. 

Regardless of what you think of the way OKC got the Thunder, the fact still remained that as of July 2008, the Seattle Supersonics ceased to exist and the Oklahoma City Thunder came into existence. Civic pride will make you argue the move until you are blue (Thunder blue, of course) in the face, but Oklahoma City had its team and it was time to show and prove. That first season was brutal, though. We knew we were getting a skeleton crew of a team with some young, unproven talent, but we didn’t know it was going to be this bad. 

The morning after another of our home losses, I called to the local morning sports talk radio show and just vented. I didn’t know if I could do this anymore. Living 90 miles from OKC and having to drive more than an hour each way, made driving back from the mounting losses excruciating. It’s almost like the team was stuck in a rut when it first got here and you had to wonder whether there wasn’t some karmic justice at play at how we had obtained the team. Thankfully, a coaching change and the general improvement of the young players led to a good finish and a hope for the next season. 

We all know what has happened the last two seasons. After a meteoric rise in their second season in OKC, the Thunder made the playoffs as an 8th seed and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of a 7th game in a riveting first round series. The team’s young stars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) went on to be the main components for a Team USA squad that won gold in the 2010 World Championships. In the next season, we finished with the 4th seed and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, losing in a close 5-game series to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Suffice to say, expectations were definitely mounting.

Finally this year, in a season that was on the brink of not happening at all due to labor strife, the team exerted its dominance on most of the league and finished with the 2nd seed in the West. Two things became apparent as we marched towards this point. Number 1: This team was mature beyond its years and eschewed the notion that youth has to wait. Number 2: The home crowd was actually beginning to affect the play of the young Thunder. 

While last season, the Thunder players were the ones being criticized in the postseason, it was our turn, as fans, to be criticized this postseason. It started when the organization began playing games on the huge jumbotron TV outside of the stadium. What became famously known as Thunder Alley started as a small gathering (1000-2000) of fans that could not get tickets to the game, but wanted to experience, first-hand, the atmosphere of being at the playoff game. Eventually that small gathering turned into an all-out block party that some reports say reached as high as 10,000 + spectators in Thunder Alley. When you get that many people in a small space, bad things are bound to happen. Violence erupted after the clinching game of the 2nd round, and the postseason form of Thunder Alley was shut down. It is pretty sad when real fans have to suffer at the expense of a couple knuckleheads. Some people aren’t fortunate enough to be able to afford playoff tickets, but still want to be in the playoff atmosphere. 

Then there were the complaints that we actually wear our free t-shirts that the team supplies to each fan during playoff games. The travesty that fans would wear those shirts and cheer together as one. Who does that? Who cheers every great play and jeers every questionable call? I thought this was the norm for fans. I thought it was par for the course. But, just like everything else, we do things just a little different. We actually feel emotionally attached to our team. I saw grown men and women crying tears of joy for our trip to the Finals. People from the outside will never understand. As we venture into the unknown world of the NBA Finals, we will move forward the only way we know how: Together as one team. #TeamIsOne