Tag Archives: Perry Jones

The Thunder (finally!) sign Josh Huestis

josh huestis thunder

A long-standing national nightmare is finally over. The hostage situation in Oklahoma City that engulfed most of the basketball world for the past year has thankfully reached its conclusion. The Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday (finally) signed last season’s first round pick, Josh Huestis, to a four-year rookie scale contract. What’s that? You don’t know who Josh Huestis is? You never realized there was a hostage situation brewing for the past year in Oklahoma City? Ooooh, you thought the only recent hostage situation involving an NBA player was in Houston in early July, when the Los Angeles Clippers (yes, the entire team) sequestered DeAndre Jordan in his home and forced him to sign a near-max contract to return back to LA. Well, I guess you aren’t a true NBA fanatic, then.

Rewind back to last year’s draft. The Thunder owned the 21st and 29th picks in the draft. At 21, they selected Mitch McGary. While that pick was viewed as a bit of a stretch due to McGary’s injury history and previous suspension in college due to marijuana usage, the talent was definitely there to help explain the pick. With the 29th pick, the Thunder selected Josh Huestis from the University of Stanford. Collectively, much of the NBA wondered, “Who?”. Draft Express didn’t even have a “strength/weaknesses” pre-draft video on Huestis. Here was a guy that was slotted to go in the middle to bottom half of the 2nd round or to go undrafted, and instead, he was selected by the Thunder in the next to last pick of the first round.

When the news came out about a month after the draft that the Thunder had made a handshake agreement with Huestis and his agents to have the rookie “red-shirt” his first season without signing his guaranteed rookie-scale contract that every first rounder gets, many members of the media chalked it up to the Thunder being cheap again. But in addition to being cheap, some members of the media were worried that Huestis was going to be taken of advantage of. Tom Ziller of SB Nation wrote a scathing article on the deal, in which he stated, “this (the deal) almost assuredly breaks the spirit of the NBA’s draft rules, if not the letter.” Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote a more balanced article in which he stated, “It (the deal) seems ridiculous, almost exploitative. The gains for the Thunder are obvious at first glance.” But then he goes on to write, “Huestis in this telling appears the dupe of a dictatorial regime. But that holds only if you assume that $1.5 million would have been available to Huestis in any other scenario…”

Huestis went on to play with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate for the entire season and ended up earning about $25,000 for his one season with the Blue. He averaged 10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game on 31.6% shooting from 3-point territory. That last stat is an important because the Thunder need role players that are able to play on both ends of the floor. The one skill Huestis was known for was his defense. It’s his development on the other end of the floor as a 3-point shooter that the Thunder want to enhance. While Huestis’ time on the Blue wasn’t memorable, he did develop into a role similar to what he will play on the Thunder.

john huestis thunder press conference

The fear from many writers was that the Thunder made this deal from a position of power and would exploit, not only Huestis, but also NBA salary cap and draft rules from that position. In the worst case scenario, the Thunder never offer Huestis the contract that he deserves as a first rounder, which in turn, would help the Thunder stay under the luxury tax or pay less money if they were over the tax. In essence, the Thunder would circumvent having to pay a first rounder, while paying less (or no) money towards the punitive luxury tax. From a cutthroat business perspective, it would’ve been a win/win for the Thunder. The team stays away from paying money to a player while also preventing or lessening the amount they have to pay to the NBA.

But the NBA, while being cutthroat as a business, is also very good at remembering a front office’s transgression, especially players and their agents. As a small market team, it would behoove the Thunder to not burn too many bridges throughout the NBA. Which is why the supposed “nuclear option” was never at play for the Thunder. Renege on this hand-shake agreement, and agents would be very leery to even suggest Oklahoma City as a destination to their player clients. Huestis and the Thunder were always in lockstep in this deal, and the writing was clearly on the wall when the Thunder traded Perry Jones to the Boston Celtics in early July.

The Huestis deal is a basic 4-year rookie contract where the first two seasons are guaranteed and the last two are team options. Since Huestis signed the contract this season, he gets locked into this season’s rookie salary scale, which will pay him $950,200, instead of the $918,000 he would’ve earned last season. Huestis will likely see a lot of his playing time this season at the Cox Convention Center, playing for the Blue. With a deep and talented, there will likely be no minutes for Huestis on the Thunder this upcoming season. Huestis comes into this season rehabbing a torn pectoral muscle he suffered earlier in the summer, and will likely start the season on the injured list. With this signing, the Thunder sit at 15 guaranteed contracts.

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Five New Year’s Resolutions for the Oklahoma City Thunder

westbrook durant thunder

It’s that time of year again. Time to look back on the year that was and look forward to the year that will be. As people look towards the year that will be, they look at ways to improve upon themselves. Whether it’s losing weight, eating healthier, committing more time to family, etc, it’s a time for reflection and introspection. It’s similar to when the season ends for sports team and the front office and coaches (if they don’t get fired) focus on what they need to do to get better.

As the Oklahoma City Thunder turn the page on 2014 (of the 2014-15 season), they will head into the New Year with a losing record for the first time since their inagural season in 2008-09. Yeah, the 3-29 season. Now, are there reasons (excuses) for the Thunder’s current state of affairs? Of course. Injuries to key players, line-up inconsistencies due to the injuries, tough schedule/conference, so on and so forth. But those are all external factors. For the most part, you can’t help those. Internally, though, there are some New Year’s Resolutions that can occur to make the Thunder better for the second half of the season.

1. Russell Westbrook’s New Year’s Resolution – Inhale, pause, then exhale

In case you haven’t noticed, Russell Westbrook has this new thing when he goes to the free throw line this season. When he receives the ball, he holds it on his left hip with his left hand. Then he raises his right hand towards his chest, like he’s about to do The Pledge of Alligience. As he raises the right hand, he inhales deeply. After about a second, he exhales profoundly, takes a couple dribbles, and shoots his free throw. I don’t know what this does for him or why he started doing it. The change in his free percentage has been infinitesimal when compared to his career average. So why do it?

westbrook thunder len dragic suns

Just for a minute think about the way Westbrook plays. It’s go, go, and GO! There is no slow down to Westbrook’s game. It’s what makes him successful and a terror to opposing defenses. It’s also what makes him turnover prone and questionable when it comes to shot selection. So it would only make sense, when he has to slow down (i.e. free throws), he would take some time to focus through breath control. It like Yao Fei on Arrow teaching Oliver Queen how to shoot arrows.

“Breathe”

Westbrook would be wise to apply that same concept to end of game situations. For the first 43 minutes of games, Westbrook plays like the best point guard (and sometimes, the best player) on the planet. But in those final 5 minutes of close games, Westbrook can run the gamut on how he plays. He can pick apart a defense, like he did against San Antonio on Christmas day, and execute perfectly in end of game situations. Or he can completely unravel (bad shots, turnovers, questionable decisions on defense) as seen in the following recent examples:

  • Dec. 21 – vs. New Orleans – At the 5:33 mark of the 4th quarter, the Thunder led 97-91. From there on in, Westbrook proceeded to go 1-8 from the field (0-3 from 3-point territory) with 2 turnovers. In that span, he did not pass the ball to any of his teammates. The Thunder went on to lose the game 99-101. Before the meltdown, he was 9-19 from the field for 27 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 steals.
  • Dec. 23 – vs. Portland – At the 2:49 mark of the 4th quarter, the Thunder led 93-84. From there, Westbrook went 1-3 from the field in regulation and 1-2 from the FT line. His offense wasn’t necessarily an issue in closing out this game, but his inability to guard Damien Lillard was. In addition, Westbrook got T’d up arguing a foul call late in the 4th quarter which led to a free throw by Lillard. Lillard scored 9 points in the final 2 minutes to bring the Trailblazers back to force the game to overtime. In overtime, Westbrook started hot, 3-3 FG, but eventually fouled out. The Thunder ended up losing 111-115.
  • Dec. 28 – at Dallas – At the 9:23 mark of the 4th quarter, the Thunder led 90-87. From there, Westbrook went 2-6 from the field in a back and forth affair. Westbrook turned the ball over twice in that span and made some questionable decisions that probably cost the Thunder the game. At one point, Westbrook turned the ball over and immediately fouled Dirk Nowitzki in frustration. Unfortunately, the Thunder were over the foul limit, and Nowitzki, one of the best FT shooters in the league, sank both of them. A couple plays later, he allowed Rajon Rondo to slip through on a back door cut for a lay-up. The Thunder ended up losing 107-112.
  • Dec. 31 – vs. Phoenix – Not in the 4th quarter, but Westbrook’s antics get him ejected in a “playoff-like” game late in the 2nd quarter. Luckily, the Thunder won the game 137-134 in overtime as Kevin Durant went all Slim Reaper on the Suns in his first game back.

It’s these times where Westbrook would be best to close his eyes, inhale deeply, focus, and then exhale profoundly. A lot of the late game problems have to do with Kevin Durant not being available. But a lot of it is a result of Westbrook’s demons rearing their heads when the lights are the brightest. The return of Durant should quell some of these issues. But if they ever do threaten to arise again, close your eyes and listen:

“Breathe, Russell. FOCUS. And release. Now go out there and do what you do best.”

Kevin Durant’s New Year’s Resolution – Wear high tops

For your New Year’s resolution, learn how to play basketball in high tops. The KD shoe line is very aesthetically pleasing. But lows on basketball courts have always bothered me. I don’t care what the studies say or what 4 out of 5 doctors recommend. In a game where that much stress and torque is placed on the ankles, having an exterior support system should be helpful in preventing injuries.

Are ankle injuries a part of basketball? Of course. But seeing how injuries have become a common theme in the story of the Thunder’s last few seasons, anything that can alleviate what we are seeing this season would help. I’m down for whatever:

  • Giving max money to the Phoenix Suns’ training staff: Check
  • Having the players soak in holy water before and after games: Check
  • Hiring the scientists from SkyNet that infused robitics with human flesh: Check

In the end, just don’t get injured anymore.

Perry Jones’ New Year’s Resolution – Be more consistent and more aggressive

jones ibaka westbrook adams thunder

The curious case of Perry Jones. Someone with the physical toolbox this man has should be consistently dominating the game of basketball. Guys that are 6’10” with freakish hops and guard-like handles are what mad scientists think about when they dream about the perfect basketball player. The problem is there is more to the game of basketball than just the physical.

For three seasons now, Thunder fans have wondered, “What would happen if Perry Jones actually tried his hardest out there?” And it honestly has nothing to do with effort. Perry Jones has never struck as a lazy player. But he has struck me as a guy that is happy just being out there. When Durant, Westbrook, and Reggie Jackson were out at the beginning of the season, we finally got to see what Jones could do. In 3 games before he, himself, suffered a knee contusion which sidelined him for a month, Jones averaged 22.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists on 52.2% shooting from the field (which included 41.2% from 3-point territory).

The think was that once Jones got back, he would be an integral part of the bench and would be an offensive aggressor with the reserve unit. Instead, the Thunder got more of Jones floating around the perimeter and never forcing the issue. When Durant went out with the sprained ankle, Jones was tabbed as the starting SF in his absence. In that first game as a starter, Jones put up a dud, going scoreless on 0-2 shooting in 12 minutes. After the game, Coach Scott Brooks implored Jones to be more aggressive. After three seasons in the league, your coach shouldn’t have to implore you to be more aggressive. It’s a league of do-ers.  If you ain’t doing, you won’t be employed for long.

Since Brooks’ plea, Jones has been a lot more aggressive in looking for his own shot. He’s averaging 8.3 points and 2.7 rebounds on 48.8% shooting from the field. Not necessarily what he was putting up in that great 3 game span, but probably the most consistent 6-game effort in his career. Jones adds a dynamic to the bench that we’ve never had: a match-up nightmare. He’s too big for most wings and too fast for most post players. And I think he’s starting to realize that he is a match-up nightmare. Embrace this thought Perry, and be what we always wanted you to be.

Steven Adam’s and Andre Roberson’s New Year’s Resolution – Higher FT percentages

The Thunder always had a big problem when they started games the last few seasons. It was almost like they started the game 3 on 5 on the offensive end. It was not strange for the Thunder to start games in a deficit because of the offensive inefficiencies of Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. The supposed plus those two players gave on the defensive end was usually overshadowed by a bigger minus on the offensive end. With that information in tow, the Thunder moved towards a younger, more dynamic starting line-up. Out were Perkins and Sefolosha, and in were Adams and Roberson.

When the Thunder have been healthy this season, the starting line-up of Westbrook-Roberson-Durant-Ibaka-Adams has been one of the top starting 5’s in the league. Roberson is already on par, if not better, than Sefolosha defensively and Adams has steadily improved on both ends of the court as the season has progressed. While Roberson is still a work in progress on the offensive end, the major difference offensively has been that Adams, when given the opportunity, can do things that Perkins just couldn’t do consistently (namely catch the ball and score over people). With every passing game, each of these young players gains more and more confidence in their abilities and in their place within the starting 5.

roberson durant adams thunder

The only issue, other than Roberson’s inconsistencies on the perimeter, has been the free throw shooting of the two second year players. Adams is currently shooting 52.6% from the free throw line on nearly 3 FT attempts per game. Roberson is shooting 50% on 1.4 FT attempts per game. While those FT attempt numbers may not seem that significantly, they are over 50% more than what both players attempted last season. Meaning that as their playing time has increased, so has their propensity in getting the to charity stripe. When you have players like Durant, Westbrook, and Reggie Jackson setting you up, you’re bound to get some looks that will cause the defense to foul you.

The free throw shooting has been so inconsistent that some teams have elected to use the Hack-an-Adams or Hack-a-Roberson technique at some points throughout the season. As this season progresses, teams may employ that more often, which may cause the Thunder to either sit those players in critical situations or roll the dice with their free throw shooting.

Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s New Year’s Resolutions – Wonder Twins Unite

Please try your hardest to stay healthy the rest of the season. Nothing is more important to the Thunder’s title hope than the health of their two superstars. It doesn’t matter what seed the Thunder are or who the draw is. If the Thunder have both Westbrook and Durant healthy come the middle of April through (hopefully) the middle of June, the Thunder will have a chance.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 22 of 82)

westbrook durant irving thompson cavs thunder

  • When: Thursday, 11 December 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The first real test of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s new season. The Thunder have quietly won 5 of their last 6 games and seem to be hitting their stride. Russell Westbrook has been MVP-worthy in the games that he has played. Kevin Durant appears to be getting back into game shape. And the Thunder, as a whole, are getting used to playing as a full collective. In the last game, against the Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City trotted out multiple small ball lineups to combat what Milwaukee was doing. And they worked for the most part. As much as the young Thunder have grown in that trying first month, Scott Brooks appears to have grown as much. Brooks is like a kid in a candy store with all the line-up possibilities. Once known for his stubbornness in adapting to the opponent’s personnel, Brooks now appears confident enough in his rotation to trot out various line-ups to combat whatever the opponent is throwing out there.

This is the first meeting of the season between the Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They split their two meetings last season, but these are not your 1 year old son’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Past history will likely have little bearing on these future meetings.

The Opponent

lebron james kevin love kyrie irving cavs

The Cavaliers come into tonight’s game with a 13-7 record, riding an 8-game win streak. After a rough start that saw them start the season 5-7, the Cavs seem to have finally righted the ship. LeBron James is once again LeBroning (no, not that LeBroning), and the other “big 2”, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, are getting used to their new roles. The Cavs are top-1o in most major categories except for defensive rating (14th – 106.1) and rebounding (24th – 41.2 per game). Leading the charge is 4th year point guard Kyrie Irving, who has slowly adjusted to his new role as a facilitator/attacker from just solely being an attacker. Irving’s ability to pick and choose the right spots where he is needed to take over has been a big factor in the Cavs’ recent resurgence. On the wing, LeBron James has recovered from his early season swoon, and is back to being his MVP-caliber self, averaging 24.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. On the other wing, Cavs coach Dave Blatt inserted veteran SF Shawn Marion into the starting line-up early in the season to help provide some perimeter defense. Up front, Kevin Love has probably had to make the biggest adjustment of the the 3 All-Stars. To go from alpha male to 3rd option can be a difficult change. But Love has done his best Chris Bosh impersonation and is learning how to make the most of his opportunities when they are presented. The veteran Anderson Varejao mans the middle providing his usual energy and defensive presence. Off the bench, Dion Waiter, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova will get most of the reserve minutes.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Cleveland Cavaliers

  • PG – Kyrie Irving
  • SG – LeBron James
  • SF – Shawn Marion
  • PF – Kevin Love
  • C – Anderson Varejao

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

Key Match-Ups

1. LeBron James vs. Andre Roberson/Perry Jones – Yes, Kevin Durant will guard James at times. But a lot of the success of the Thunder will be dependent on Durant being on the floor and not getting into foul trouble. This is where Roberson and Jones come into play. Jones’ career, before his 3-game scoring binge at the beginning of this season, has been defined by the job he did on James in the 2nd half of the Thunder game against the Heat in Miami last season. While he didn’t necessarily shut him down, he did make James work for whatever he got in that game. And most importantly, he kept Durant off of James.

NBA: Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder

2. Serge Ibaka vs. Kevin Love – Love has always been a match-up nightmare for Ibaka. Love can grab rebounds with the best of them, but can also take you outside on the perimeter. That inside/outside game can cause Ibaka to get lost in the shuffle. Look for the Thunder to play smaller, and for Ibaka to be more on Thompson or Varejao than Love.

3. Russell Westbrook vs. Kyrie Irving – Whoever plays the smarter game will likely lead their team to victory. But one of these two, if not both, will likely look to one up the other at some point in the game.

3 Keys to the Game

1. Rebounding – A lot like LeBron’s Miami teams, rebounding is a weakness of this Cavalier team. Even with Kevin Love, who is averaging his lowest rebounds per game average since his rookie season, the Cavs still struggle on the boards. On the offensive end, Love finds himself on the perimeter many times, negating offensive rebounding opportunities. Defensively, Cleveland’s penchant for forcing teams to shoot jumpers, causes long rebound opportunities to land in the lap of the offense. The Thunder will definitely need more than 1 rebound in a half from Steven Adams in this game.

ibaka jackson morrow thunder

2. Bench – The Thunder’s bench unit is becoming one of the better ones in the league. The Cavs bench is one that can be extremely streaky, especially Waiters. As long as Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Anthony Morrow play their games, the Thunder bench should be a net positive against the Cavs.

3. Mike Miller – I don’t care if Miller has missed the last 3 games with a concussion. He should be available for this game, and he torches Oklahoma City nearly every time he plays against us. I fully expect him to go 4/5 on 3-point shots.

The Thunder through the first month of the season: 10 Thoughts

ibaka jones jackson thunder

To call this season eventful would be an understatement. The Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at 3-10, a far cry from the record many predicted the Thunder would have at this point before the season started. But those predictions are usually predicated on the belief that injuries won’t be a factor. Well, injuries have been a huge factor for the Thunder. Here are 10 thoughts from the first two weeks of the season.

1. Injuries stink!

It started with a small blurb, “Mitch McGary’s foot will be re-evaluated following the (Denver) game.” This was right after the Thunder’s first preseason game. A game in which McGary looked like the second coming of Bill Laimbeer. The injury occurred late in the game, but McGary stayed in the game until the final buzzer. But alas, McGary ended up with a broken foot and was reported to be out for 6-8 weeks. Then, after the second preseason game, Kevin Durant went to the training staff to complain about foot pain. It was revealed that he had suffered a Jones fracture and would need surgery. His recovery was slated to take 6-8 weeks also. Next up was Anthony Morrow, who was injured in practice two weeks before the start of the season. He recovery period was said to be between 4-6 weeks. Then 2 days before the start of the season, Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) both got injured in the final home practice of the preseason.

The Thunder started the season with 8 healthy bodies. Then in the second game of the season, Russell Westbrook missed a shot, went up for a rebound, and came down looking at his hand. He accidentally slammed is hand against Kendrick Perkins’ granite elbow and ended up with a broken bone in his hand that required surgery. His recovery period is said to be between 4-6 weeks. Down to 7 healthy bodies. Reggie Jackson came back for the 4th game of the season, but in that game, Andre Roberson went down with a sprained foot. Down to 6 healthy bodies. In the 5th game of the season, the Thunder got Lamb back, but lost Perry Jones due to a knee contusion. One step forward, one step back. Luckily, the Thunder haven’t suffered anymore injuries since then. The cavalry is due to come back in the next few weeks, with the hope being that the patchwork Thunder can stay afloat long enough for the team to dig out of the injury-riddled hole it’s gotten itself into.

To get a full grasp of the current injury situation, Thunder players have already missed 80 games due to injury through 13 games. Thunder players missed 83 games due to injury all of last season.

durant westbrook roberson thunder injuries

I’ve never seen an injury spell like this, but it does kind of remind me of the 2nd season the Hornets were in town. In that season, the Hornets were predicted to be on the verge of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They had a young, up-and-coming duo in Chris Paul and David West, a young defensive big man in Tyson Chandler, and the catch of the offseason in Peja Stojakovic. The season got off to a great start as the Hornets opened up 8-3 out of the gate. But then came the injuries. Top reserve guard Bobby Jackson missed 26 games due to a cracked rib, West got injured in the 8th game of the season with an elbow issue that required surgery and missed 30 games, Stojakovic had back surgery after the 13th game of the season and missed the rest of the year, and Paul severely sprained his ankle in the 27th game of the season and missed the next 17 games. The Hornets still battled throughout the season, but the injuries proved to be too much and they were eliminated from the playoff hunt in the final month of the season. Here’s hoping the Thunder fare a little bit better.

2. The emergence of Reggie Jackson as a featured player

This could simultaneously be the best and worst thing for the Thunder in their future negotiations with Jackson. It’s great because the Thunder have a third player they can lean on if Durant and Westbrook either miss time or are being heavily keyed on by the opposing defense. And with this injury bug, they’ve definitely needed Jackson to step up. But it’s bad because, with every good game Jackson has and with every game he takes over in the 4th quarter, it’s just a little bit more added to his asking price. Through his first 6 games of the season, Jackson is averaging 22.8 points, 7.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 0.7 steals on 43% shooting from the field. Removing sample size from the equation, those numbers look very  Westbrookian. But like everything else in the NBA, once opposing defenses get at least 5 games worth of film on you, they can start to scheme against your strengths.

In the last 4 games, opposing teams have begun to focus their defensive energy on Jackson. They either blitz him with an additional defender when he’s 23 feet from the basket or they shadow him with a big man as he dribbles on the perimeter. In those 4 games, Jackson is averaging 15.3 points, 8 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game. Those are still good number, but his shooting percentage in those 4 games has dropped to 34.4% overall and 20% from 3-point territory. Without too many consistent options on the offensive side of the ball, Jackson is getting a glimpse of what life could like on his own team.

The dirty little secret with the Thunder is that with Westbrook and Durant on the floor, their exorbitant usage percentages tend to mask the full talents of their 3rd and 4th best players. James Harden was never given the opportunity to fully show his array of skills throughout his time with the Thunder. Yes, he played well enough to win the 6th Man of the Year award, but it wasn’t until he was fully unleashed while on the Rockets that he proved he was, arguably, the best 2-guard in the game. While Jackson will likely never be in the discussion for best point guard in the game, he definitely has the skill set to be considered in that second to third tier of point guards outside of Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steph Curry, and Westbrook.

3. The Veteran Presence of Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison

If I’m a young player in the NBA and I know that I’m likely headed down the career path of being a role player/specialist, then I would be attaching myself to the hip pockets of any of these two guys. In the midst of all this chaos, Collison and Perkins have been bastions of stability, with surprising flashes of necessary greatness. Perkins could have come into this season moping and complaining because of his demotion to the bench. Instead, he’s approached this season with an almost youthful zeal, and he’s probably put together the best 9 games of his Thunder career. In the Thunder’s first win of the season against Denver, Perkins (after scoring 17 points, by the way) echoed the sentiments of the coaching staff by saying that the Thunder “were all in this boat, together.” These are the intangibles that can’t be measured by a statistician. For the most part, Perkins’ stat do not merit his $9.4 million dollar salary. But as a locker room leader, its times like this where Perkins earns every penny he receives in that pay period.

perkins collison thunder

Collison’s play for the past season and a half would lead most to believe that he was on the last leg of his career. The nagging injuries were starting to mount and his effectiveness on the court was starting to diminish. But the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” fell on deaf ears when it came to Collison. Over the offseason, Collison worked on refining his outside shot. There were glimpses of it last season, but this year, Collison has taken it to another level. He has made more 3-point FG’s in the first 13 games of the season (11), than he has in the first 10 years of his career (5). While this may be some sort of statistical anomaly, it may also be the renaissance that can extend Collison’s effectiveness a couple more seasons.

4. Serge Ibaka: The Strangest 3 and D guy in the League

In the 7 seasons the Thunder have been in Oklahoma City, they’ve had a number of 3-point specialists on the team. From Daequan Cook to Kevin Martin to Anthony Morrow, the team is always in search of players that will help spread the floor and provide Durant and Westbrook space to operate. The floor spacer the team has been looking for may have been on the team all along. Serge Ibaka had shown signs of being an effective 3-point shooter in the past couple seasons. In the last 2 seasons, Ibaka has shot 43-117 from 3-point territory, good for 36.8%. This season, through the first 13 games, Ibaka is 23-59 (39%) from deep on 4.5 3-point attempts per game. He has already matched his total of made 3-point FG’s from last season. Some of that is out of necessity due to the team needing to find offense in its current situation. But, I also think this may be by design. Can you imagine Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson operating in a small ball line-up where Ibaka takes the center out towards the 3-point line? I would surmise it would be almost unfair.

5. The Development of Perry Jones

More than any other sport, athleticism is of extreme importance to basketball. The fluid nature of the game, the constant movement, the jumping, the slashing, the running. It’s almost like a fast paced ballet. The more athletic the player, the more of a leg up they have in the league. Is every athletic player destined for greatness? Of course not. But athleticism can be a major tool to have in an NBA career. For two years now, we’ve heard from different members of the Thunder organization marveling about Jones’ athletic ability. Heaping the accolades that he is the most athletic player on an extremely athletic team. But on the court, he could never seem to put it all together. You saw the flashes of athletic brilliance, but the motor and the want to be great seemed to be missing. What you got was a player that was seemingly content with being a “utility defender” and a spot-up 3-point shooter.

perry jones thunder

With necessity, though, comes action. When Westbrook went down in the first half of the 2nd game of the season, the Thunder were left without a consistent playmaker. Sebastian Telfair, a player that wasn’t even in the league last season, was tasked with setting up the offense. But who would he pass it to? Enter Perry Jones. With the vacuum created by the absence of Durant, Jackson, and Westbrook, Jones stepped up and averaged 22.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists on 52% shooting from the field in the 3 games in which he played more than 34 minutes. Even though it was only a 3 game spurt, the experience Jones got in learning how to use his tools, may be key to the Thunder’s future success.

6. The Fragility of Jeremy Lamb’s Mental State

The first two games after Lamb came from injury: 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists per game on 46.4% FG shooting and 33.3% from 3-point territory.

The next two games from Lamb: 5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2 assists per game on 17.4% FG shooting and 0-7 from 3-point territory.

So, what was the difference between these two splits? The easy answer is that the first two games were at home and the next two were on the road. But I think the real cause goes deeper than that. Last season, Lamb’s home/road splits were nearly identical. Consistency, based on venue, was never an issue with Lamb. So, then, what was the major difference between the first two games and the next two games?

My hypothesis is that Lamb performs better when there is no competitive pressure on him from an internal source. In essence, when he is allowed to play carefree without anybody waiting in the wing to take his minutes, he performs wonderfully. But as soon as there is competitive pressure from a teammate for minutes, Lamb starts to press and his performance suffers. In the first two games that Lamb played, Anthony Morrow was out with a knee injury. But as soon as Morrow was activated, Lamb’s numbers suffered. A similar scenario happened last season when the Thunder signed Caron Butler in late February. Lamb’s performance, which had been trending downward in the month of February, completely bottomed out after Butler was signed and he lost his spot in the rotation.

Since his first 4 games of the seasons, it appears that Lamb’s inconsistencies have a lot to do with home/road splits this season. At home, Lamb averages 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on 50% shooting from the field and 40% from 3. On the road, Lamb’s averages drop to 9.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 25.6% shooting from the first and 27.8% from 3.

7. The Importance of the 15th Man – Lance Thomas 

Every year, the Thunder brings in about 3-4 hopefuls to training camp to fill out their preseason roster. Those players are usually cut by the time the season starts and some even become part of the Thunder’s D-League team. The Thunder like to head into the season with an empty roster spot in case they need to facilitate a trade or if they need to sign someone later in the season. But this season, with all the injuries, the Thunder chose to sign one of their training camp hopefuls. Lance Thomas beat out Talib Zanna, Richard Solomon, and Michael Jenkins to secure the coveted 15th spot on the team.

Thunder v Raptors

A 15th man is usually a player that goes hard in practice, and then cheers from the sidelines in a nicely tailored suit as an inactive player. If the 15th man is getting playing time, then a couple of scenarios are at play: either several players on the roster are injured, a recent trade has trimmed the roster by at least 2 players, or some players are sitting out for rest. To us fans, the last guy off the bench is usually an afterthought. Someone we know is a part of the team, but also, someone whom we don’t necessarily want playing significant minutes.

But to a general manager, the 15th man could be the piece of gum that prevents the dam from breaking. If the 15th man has to play, then he better be someone that can give you something of significance. Well, not only has Lance Thomas had to play, but he’s also started 9 games for the Thunder. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and turnovers. There are games where he plays like the 15th man on our roster. But then there are games where his energy and hustle help the team significantly. In a perfect world, I would love for Thomas to remain as our 15th man. In the real world, though, he will probably be the sacrificial lamb sometime this season, for a trade or to make room for a late season veteran signing. Whatever happens, he has shown his mettle and will likely get another chance in this league because of it.

8. Sebastian Telfair – The Stabilizer

When Telfair signed with the team this offseason, the thought was that he would play the veteran third string point guard role that Royal Ivey and Kevin Ollie have filled in the past. A veteran that can still play some, but is more of a team-first guy. Instead, with all the injuries on the team, Telfair has had to fill the Derek Fisher role: point guard gunner off the bench.

Telfair career was thought to be on its last leg after he played in China last season. For the promise that he brought coming into the NBA, he has been a bit of a bust. But he has carved out a respectable 10 year career as a journeyman playing for 8 franchises, including a two time tour of duty in Minnesota. As a third string point guard making the league minimum, Telfair would’ve probably fared great on this team. The scary part would’ve been if he was needed to be pressed into action, and that fear came to fruition as the season started.

Surprisingly, though, Telfair has been a bit of a stabilizer on this team. Does he chuck too much at times? Yes. Does he turn it over more times than a veteran point guard should? Yes. Is he lacking defensively? Yes. But he’s a gamer when he’s in there and gives 100% effort. When Westbrook and Jackson were out for that game and a half in the beginning of the season, Telfair went out there and performed admirably against Chris Paul and Ty Lawson. His veteran presence has helped this team stay even-keeled throughout this arduous process.

9. Scott Brooks – Possible Coach of the Year candidate

The Coach of the Year award usually goes to one of two coaches: either the coach on the team that overachieves and makes the playoffs or the coach on the best team in the league when there isn’t a surprise overachieving team. But let’s say the Thunder navigate through this rough start and actually make it to the playoffs in the Western Conference. Wouldn’t Brooks be as deserving in leading this patchwork MASH unit to the playoffs as any other coach in the league? Brooks has had to adapt to the team he has. He’s muddied up the games in hopes that the Thunder can stick around long enough to make a run at the end of the game. He’s employed 2-3 zone defenses and strange line-ups where every player on the floor was over 6’9″ (Jones, Thomas, Perkins, Ibaka, and Collison). He’s become kind of a subdued mad scientist.

coach brooks thunder

Will voters remember this run when Westbrook and Durant have played 55-60 together at the end of the season? Probably not. But the biggest knock on Brooks has always been is inability to quickly adapt to situations, whether in game or in a small sample size of games. Now that he’s adapting on the fly, I wonder if this will continue when the reinforcements come back, or if Brooks will revert back to his old ways. Either way, if the Thunder are anywhere near the 6th seed in the West when the season closes, I think Brooks should be in consideration for COY.

10. Heart of a Champion!

Regardless of where the Thunder finish this season, the moxie they have exhibited in these first 13 games should be applauded. Have they looked horrible at times? Yes. But, at least they haven’t looked Philadelphia 76ers horrible. They’ve been in most games until the end and have shown no quit. It’s been a learning process and hopefully, the lessons learned early this season will help guide this team in May and June.

I See The Light: Thunder Injury Updates

The beginning of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014-15 campaign has been pretty dark. With injury after injury after injury, it feels like we’ve angered the God of Moses and have been cursed 7 times over. In fact, seven has been the consistent number of Thunder players on the injured list at any given time. Reggie Jackson comes back, but Andre Roberson gets injured in the same game and replaces Jackson on the injured list. Again, still seven. Then Perry Jones gets injured in the next, bringing the number of Thunder wounded to eight.

After a day off yesterday, today provided a plethora of encouraging news from the Thunder practice facility. First of all, no one suffered any new injuries (whew!). Secondly, guys are starting to come back from their injuries. Here are a couple tweets from Royce Young of DailyThunder.com and Darnell Mayberry and Anthony Slater of the Daily Oklahoman.

So to recap: Kevin Durant and Mitch McGary are both out of their walking boots. Jeremy Lamb practiced hard and will probably be available for Friday’s game. Anthony Morrow and Andre Roberson shot around, but were limited. And there was no report on Perry Jones, who is likely out for Friday’s game. Also, the Thunder signed PG Ish Smith as their hardship exception signing.

It’s faint, but there is a growing light at the end of this injury tunnel. Hopefully, that light gets bigger and bigger with each passing day.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors preview (Game 5 of 82)

adams valanciunas thunder raptors

  • When: Tuesday, 04 November 2014 at 6:30 PM CST
  • Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Four games in and the Oklahoma City Thunder sit at a record they haven’t seen since their inaugural season in 2008. That much was to be expected with the rash of injuries the team has faced. What wasn’t expected was the effort with which the team has exhibited. In the first two games of the season, against top flight teams in the Western Conference, the Thunder were in the game well into the 4th quarter. On Saturday, against a Denver Nuggets team that was looking to rebound from a disappointing, injury-plagued season last year, the Thunder executed almost perfectly throughout the game to get their first victory of the season. The return of Reggie Jackson from an ankle injury was supposed to provide the team with the playmaker they had been missing since Russell Westbrook went out early in the 2nd game of the season. Instead, Jackson’s return brought the team back to its iso-ball ways and they were blown out by the Brooklyn Nets.

It’ll be interesting to see how Scott Brooks adjusts to this. On the one hand, you now have a ball-handler that can threaten a defense (Jackson). But on the other hand, your best bet to win with this lineup is to completely muddy up the game by slowing it down and hope that it becomes a defensive battle.

The Thunder and the Toronto Raptors split their two meetings from last season, each winning on the other’s home court. Each game went down to the 4th quarter, with the average margin of victory being 3.5 points.

The Opponent

lowry ross derozan johnson valanciunas raptors

The Raptors come into the game with a 2-1 record. Last  year, they won the Atlantic Divison, and made their first trip to the postseason since the 2007-08 season. They battled their division rival, the Brooklyn Nets, and lost in 7 games. But the spark had been lit and the fan resurgence in Toronto was reminiscent of the Vince Carter days. The team is led by one of the better backcourts in the league, with PG Kyle Lowry and SG DeMar DeRozan. The duo is averaging nearly 42 points and 5 steals a game. The other wing, Terrence Ross, is averaging almost 10 points a game, but has the ability to go off for big numbers, as evidenced by his 51 point explosion last season against the Clippers. Up front, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas make up one of the more athletic and versatile front courts in the league. Off the bench, the Raptors are a mix of young veterans like Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Lou Williams, and James Johnson.

Probable Starting Line-up

Toronto Raptors

  • PG – Kyle Lowry
  • SG – Terrence Ross
  • SF – DeMar DeRozan
  • PF – Amir Johnson (Game-time decision due to ankle)
  • C – Jonas Valanciunas

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Sebastian Telfair
  • SG – Reggie Jackson
  • SF – Perry Jones
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Depth and Fouls – Lowry and DeRozan are personal foul magnets. You look at them and you might get called for a foul. Between the both of them, they are averaging 21 free attempts per game. That’s on some Durant/Westbrook levels right there. With only 2 guards on the entire roster (Andre Roberson is out with a sprained foot) look for the Raptors’ wings to attack Jackson and Telfair.

2. Shut Down the Lane – The Thunder have been employing an effective zone lately. If there was ever a team to trot that out on, it would be the Raptors. Collectively, they only shoot 42.5% from the field and 25.4% from deep.

DeMar DeRozan, Kendrick Perkins

3. Ugly it Up – The biggest mistake that can be taken from the Nets’ game was trying to keep up with them. The reason the Thunder’s first 3 games were close was because we slowed the game down and slogged it out. With Jackson back in the fold, we relaxed defensively and tried to run offensively, which back-fired on us.

There are no strings on me: The Thunder and the current normal

ultron

I have a confession: I’m completely geeked out for this new Avengers movie after watching the leaked (and then official) trailer. I’ve never been a big comic book fan. I always have to ask brother in law (an avid comic book fan) or Wikipedia about the back stories and B-level characters. But as the Marvel universe has progressed and expanded, it has slowly engulfed my interests and now I’m hooked.

So, about that trailer. In it, the Avengers reassemble against a new foe, Ultron. Apparently, Ultron is a robotic creation of Tony Starks’ that either develops its own free will or is “infused” with its own free will. Anyways, like many other movies of the “robotic element with artificial intelligence” genre, Ultron decides that humans are inferior and must be eliminated. His opening soliloquy, voiced dead on by an eerie James Spader, ultimately locks into Ultron’s theme in the movie: “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want to change it. You’re all puppets, tangled in strings.” His closing line, cloaked behind an haunting rendition of Pinocchio’s “I’ve got no strings” song, tells the story of Ultron’s existence: “I’m free. I have no strings on me”.

In a lot of ways, the young players on the Thunder have been held back by the strings of the current system they have in place. A system that caters mainly to the skill sets of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (and to a lesser extent Reggie Jackson). The system is in place for good reason, though: notably that Durant and Westbrook, regardless of what ESPN’s NBARank thinks, are 2 of the top 5 players in the league. Players like Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones, and Steven Adams all have specific roles to fill in the system. Any deviation from their role can threaten, not only the system, but also the player’s inclusion into the system (a.k.a playing time).

Young players drafted onto championship contenders have the ominous distinction of not only having to develop, but having to develop specifically to a role. If young players are drafted onto bad teams, they are basically given free reign to develop into what they may ultimately become. It’s the tabula rasa concept of letting a blank slate paint itself. Carmelo Anthony’s career would probably be a lot different if he was drafted by the championship contending Detroit Pistons in 2003. In Denver, he was allowed to assume the leadership role of the team early on and develop on his own. In Detroit, he would’ve been stashed behind Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace for at least one season, if not longer. The young players on the Thunder have had to sacrifice their development for the greater good of the team. While they do get to develop in a winning environment, they unfortunately cannot get those 1-3 years of “tabula rasa” development back. The D-League helps, but the competition pales in comparison to the NBA.

perry jones thunder

This season, from the outset, has been one of those “worst possible scenarios” type seasons. A lot of times when NBA writers are typing up their league preview columns, they sometimes give the Best Outcome/Worst Outcome for each team. Well, the beginning of this season has definitely been the “worst outcome” incarnate. It started with rookie Mitch McGary breaking his foot after the first preseason game. Then Durant was found to also have a broken foot that required surgery two days later. All the while, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Nick Collison were out with various ailments. Then, a week before the season starts, Anthony Morrow goes down with a sprained MCL in pratice. Then two days before the start of the regular season, both Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) get injured in practice and have to sit out the first two games of the season. And finally, Westbrook breaks his hand in the 2nd game of the season. It’s been a curse-like run of bad luck from the get-go this season.

With struggle, comes change. Coach Scott Brooks, long criticized for his inability to adapt on the fly to in-game situations, has had to almost free-style rap a system that is more suited to the likes of Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Sebastian Telfair, and Serge Ibaka. Gone is the system that was catered to two superstars. Now, the the strings of that system have been cut, and players like Jones and Roberson are able to explore and see what they can do in this league without any restraints. The Thunder have gone from championship contender to blank slate developers in the span of a month. With Jones’ career high 32 point explosion on Friday night, it proved , under the guise of necessity and when given a chance, these young players can achieve great things in this league. At least for the next month, the young players on the Thunder will be a lot like Ultron: free and without any strings.

There will be frustrating moments during these next 4-6 weeks. It will be like watching one’s own kids going through their awkward teenage phase. But there will also be moments where the growth of these players will be on full display. And that can be nothing but beneficial for the Thunder. Remember, the silver lining in all of this is that all the significant injuries are only of the 4-6 week variety. If the team can win a couple games they are supposed to and steal a couple games they aren’t, they may be in position to make a big push as the calendar year turns. By January, everybody should be back healthy and ready to make their playoff push. The experience gained by the young players from now to then will be a valuable tool as the team heads towards the playoffs. And in case any one was wondering, they will make the playoffs. Mark it down.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers preview (Game 2 of 82)

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  • When: Thursday, 30 October 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

The Oklahoma City Thunder played great for the first 40 minutes of the night against Portland. Russell Westbrook was going all SuperNova on the Trailblazers, Lance Thomas (LANCE THOMAS!) was doing his best Kenneth Faried impression, and the defense was clamping down on the Portland shooters. Then the 4th quarter started. The defense lost its discipline, the role players started playing like role players, and Russell Westbrook, who was on the bench to begin the quarter, couldn’t bring the Thunder back with the Portland defense keying in on him. With all the odds that were stacked against the Thunder, this did feel like a bit of a moral victory. A loss was expected, but to have a 2 point lead heading into the 4th quarter, and then completely fall apart, was a bit disappointing. But as the venerable Swizz Beatz would say, “On to the next one.”

The Los Angeles Clippers open up their season in the same place and against the same team where it ended last season. The Thunder defeated the Clippers in 6 games in the 2nd round of last season’s playoffs. In what is quickly becoming a budding rivalry in the league, the Clippers are trying to get to where the Thunder have been. The teams split their regular season meetings last year, with each team winning one game on the other’s court.

The Opponent

griffin barnes jordan paul redick clippers

The Clippers finished last season 57-25, good for 3rd in the Western Conference. They defeated the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs as the series went the distance. They then lost to the Thunder in 6 games in the second round. The Clippers had the highest offensive rating in the league last season (112.1), and bring back most of the core from the previous year. Leading the charge is one of the best players in the league, Chris Paul. He led the league in assists per game (10.7) and steals per game (2.5). Joining Paul in the backcourt is sharp shooter JJ Redick who shot nearly 40% from 3-point territory last season. Up front, MVP candidate Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan continue to cause havoc with their athleticism and size. The Clippers sport one of the better benches in the league, which features 2-time 6th Man of the Year award winner Jamal Crawford, Jordan Farmar, and stretch center Spencer Hawes.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Los Angeles Clippers

  • PG – Chris Paul
  • SG – JJ Redick
  • SF – Matt Barnes
  • PF – Blake Griffin
  • C – DeAndre Jordan

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Perry Jones
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – Much like the Portland game, one of the keys to holding a high scoring offense in check is guarding the 3-point line. The Thunder did a good job of that for 3 quarters, but got undisciplined in the 4th quarter and paid a costly price. The Clippers have 6 players who shot at least 34% from deep last season. The perimeter defenders (especially Andre Roberson and Perry Jones) need to do a better job of staying with the shooters and not following the ball so much.

2. A little help – I don’t know if he is out of shape, hurt, or trying to do too much, but Ibaka did not look like himself last night. He was pump-faking and trying to create, which led to his team high 5 turnovers. He was hesitating on his outside shot, which is unlike him, and shot only 4/11. He may just be out of sync due to missing most of training camp. Hopefully, its something he can work through and correct as soon as possible. Perry Jones, after two great preseason games, looked very lost out there in the starting line-up. He shot 1-9 from the field and was spun around a couple times on the defensive end. Roberson was okay, but the Thunder may still need more from him, even if its as a slasher. You know the team is struggling a bit when Lance Thomas is the 2nd leading scorer on the team with 14 points. Westbrook will need more help this game. Speaking of Westbrook…

Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers

3. Paul vs. Westbrook – Are there any more contenders for best point guard in the game? Maybe a healthy Derrick Rose, but for the most part, I think not. Last season’s dual was won by Westbrook in dominating fashion. Round 2 will likely be as entertaining.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trailblazers preview (Game 1 of 82)

westbrook lillard thunder trailblazers

  • When: Wednesday, 29 October 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Moda Center, Portland, OR

If there was ever a time for the entire world to go into hibernation for, ohh, I don’t know, maybe 6 weeks, this would be the time. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be strolling into Portland on Wednesday to open the season with 9 healthy players. The Thunder usually have a 10-player rotation in the regular season. They have 9 capable bodies, currently. The injury bug has hit the Thunder hard this preseason with Kevin Durant and Mitch McGary each suffering a broken foot, Anthony Morrow suffering a sprained MCL, Grant Jerrett still recovering from offseason ankle surgery, and Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Jeremy Lamb (back) each suffering injuries in the practice before the road trip. The only saving grace is that none of the injuries appear to be too serious.

The Thunder and Portland Trailblazers split the season series last year 2-2. The Northwest division rivals played four close games, with all of them being decided in the fourth quarter and by single digits. The average margin of victory in each of the contests was 5.5 points.

The Opponent

trailblazers lopez matthews lillard aldridge

The Trailblazer start  their season at home with visions of improving upon the season they had last year. Portland finished 54-28, good for 5th in their West. They defeated the Houston Rockets in 6 games in the first round and lost to the eventual champs in the second round in 5 games. Their entire core is back, and they picked up some veteran free agents for the bench. The only player missing who logged significant minutes last season is Mo Williams, who signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason. With such comfort and continuity, look for Portland to once again be one of the top offenses in the league. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews are one of the top two-way backcourts in the league. Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge are quickly becoming one of the best duos in the league. On the perimeter, small forward Nic Batum is their best defender and someone capable of knocking down open jumpers. In the middle, Robin Lopez does a great job of keeping possessions alive with his energy. The bench, which was a weakness last season, has been shored up by veteran free agents Steve Blake and Chris Kaman. CJ McCollum and Thomas Robinson will also play a big role off the bench.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Portland Trailblazers

  • PG – Damian Lillard
  • SG – Wesley Matthews
  • SF – Nic Batum
  • PF – LaMarcus Aldridge
  • C – Robin Lopez

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Perry Jones
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Foul Trouble – With only four warm bodies to come off the bench, the Thunder need to be very wary of their fouls. Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins both have a propensity for picking up quick fouls, and that would be disastrous against a team with skilled bigs like Portland. On the perimeter, the depth is even worse. Sebastian Telfair is the only guard available for the Thunder off the bench.

collison adams aldridge trailblazers thunder

2. Outside shooting – Oklahoma City’s top 3 perimeter shooters (Durant, Morrow, and Jackson) are out. The Trailblazers will be packing the paint, so making outside shots consistently will be necessary to win the game. All eyes will be on Russell Westbrook, which will leave Roberson, Jones, and Ibaka open from the perimeter. They have to knock down shots for the Thunder to even be in contention to win this game.

3. Westbrook – The great unknown. The fun unknown. We’ve always wondered what a team that solely featured Russell Westbrook would look like. Well, the Westbrook experience is taking off and we bought the Fast Pass. Let’s go!

Uncharted Waters: The Thunder and the Kevin Durant injury

durant thunder injury

In life, things have a way of working out oppositely to what we expected. The job promotion you thought would make you happy, actually makes you miserable working under the megalomaniac you call your new boss. The breakup with that significant other you thought would sink you into a depression, actually allowed you to find THE ONE. Life has a strange way of finding its own equilibrium. And that’s exactly how I’m approaching this injury to Kevin Durant. There are negatives and positives to any situation, even this one.

Bad News First: The Negatives:

1. Risk of Reinjury – We saw last season how nagging surgical interventions can be. The battle is not won when the surgeon proclaims, “This surgery was a success.” On a side note, I’ve always wondered what that meant. How do you know it was successful if you haven’t even tested the fix yet? I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘the surgery was a success’ is doctor speak for ‘we operated on the correct leg and the patient is still alive’. Russell Westbrook’s initial meniscus surgery was labeled a success. But complications do occur and that’s what the Thunder faced when Westbrook’s knee began to swell during training camp. Scans were run, and it was determined that a loose internal stitch had caused the swelling. Westbrook had a second, probably minor, arthroscopic surgery to fix that issue. The second surgery kept Westbrook out all preseason and two games into the regular season. Westbrook returned on the third game of the season and played like nothing had ever happened to him. That is, until his knee began to swell again around the Christmas game. The team performed another scope of the knee, which kept Westbrook out until after the All-Star break. In all, Westbrook missed 36 games last season.

The area where Durant suffered the break is notorious for being a difficult heal spot. The blood flow to that area of the bone is much less then at the ends of the bone. There have been plenty of players who have suffered this break and have had this surgery and have come back to the game just fine. But there have been others, like Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets and CJ McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers, who have suffered reinjury of the same bone, usually within a year or two of the initial surgery.  I bring up those two names because they span the spectrum of player body types. Lopez is a 7-footer who weighs over 250 pounds and plays in the post. McCollum is a 6’3 combo guard that can take it to the rim and shoot the outside shot. Durant is like the best of both worlds: a 6’11 forward who moves like a guard. Luckily, he doesn’t pack the same mass as Lopez. Will Durant lack of size actually benefit him in his recovery from this injury or will his style of play (guard-like) be a deterrent in his recovery?

brook lopez injury

2. Falling behind in the Western Conference – A lot changed this offseason in the NBA. One thing that remained the same: the Western Conference is still brutal. Most every team in the conference either improved or stayed the course, with the exception, possibly, of Houston and Minnesota. Over the past 5 seasons, the wins average to get into the playoffs in the West has been 47 games. Prior to Durant’s injury, this team was slated to win between 58 and 62 games and be in contention for the number one seed, not only in the Western Conference, but also, throughout the playoffs. That wins estimate will probably need to be curtailed back a bit depending on when Durant gets back, and how he looks when he does get back.

A Westbrook-Ibaka-Jackson core could easily lead the Thunder to 45 wins, which may be good for an 8th seed in the West. And although the Thunder have won road playoff games before, they would much rather play in the friendly confines of the ‘Peake come playoff time. With that said, one of the biggest lessons this team has learned in the past 3 seasons is that home court advantage probably counts more in the early rounds of the playoffs than in the later rounds. Veteran teams like San Antonio and Dallas, who have routinely been to the later rounds of the playoffs, don’t really care where they play. They usually perform the same whether they are at home or on the road. Maybe the Thunder are becoming veteran enough to realize that sacrificing a couple victories in the regular season for rest, may come back to help them in the playoffs, whether its at home or on the road.

3. Derailment of Durant’s repeat MVP campaign – Is it possible that Durant could repeat as MVP this season, even while missing up to a quarter of the season? It’s plausible, but highly unlikely. First of all, the season’s narratives are all working against Durant this season. LeBron James is back in Cleveland in the homecoming of all homecomings. Derrick Rose is back after being sidelined for nearly two years due to various knee ailments. Kobe Bryant is back from injury and looking like the Bryant of old. And Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are ready to take the next step in their development after a tumultuous final year of ownership under Donald Sterling. Narrative and time on the court are both working against Durant. Hopefully, Durant is more worried about the Finals MVP, since he already has a regular season one under his belt.

Good News: The Positives

1. We’ve been here before – We’ve been through this already with Westbrook. When he was scheduled to miss the first month of the season recovering from his second knee surgery in 4 months, many Thunder fans thought the team would struggle mightily out the gates. Instead, Westbrook returned in the third game of the season, and the Thunder played like a fully healthy Thunder team would play. Then, in late December when Westbrook was slated to be out for another two months, everybody fretted about the upcoming schedule. Instead, Durant went supernova on the league (Slim Reaper) and the Thunder made it out of that run relatively unscathed. Will this be the same situation? Probably not.

The Thunder had a good replacement player for Westbrook in Reggie Jackson. While Jackson is no Westbrook, he does a lot of the same things that Westbrook does, which allows the Thunder to play their style of basketball. Unfortunately, there is no one on the roster that can mirror what Durant does for the Thunder. Perry Jones is a candidate, but doesn’t have that extra gear to be a factor on the floor. Anthony Morrow is a possibility, but, while he’s a great shooter, he struggles in creating his own shot.

So how will the Thunder survive? The same way they survived when Westbrook went down. Rely on Westbrook to provide a lot of the offense, and have other players step up their games offensively and defensively. Ibaka, Jackson, and Jeremy Lamb can each do their parts offensively. The team will probably have to start Steven Adams as he is much more offensively adept as compared to Kendrick Perkins. And coach Scott Brooks will probably have to trust his young guys a lot more. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will it be frustrating at times? Yes. Will it be exhilarating at times? Hell yeah.

jackson ibaka jones thunder

2. Young guys get to step up – A lot like last season, the Thunder young core (Adams, Lamb, Jones, and Andre Roberson) has to step up if the team is to stay afloat and succeed. If anything, this season is a big one for Lamb and Jones, as they are eligible for their first extensions after this season. If that isn’t motivation to step up your game, I don’t know what is. It’s put up or shut up time for these two players. The organization seemingly likes these two guys, but with them coming up on extensions in the next two seasons, it’s time to see if they can really be core members of the team or if they are trade bait for future assets.

Last season, when Westbrook went down, Lamb provided some of the fire power off the bench that was missing when Jackson was tasked to start. In the first half of the season, Lamb almost averaged double figures. His scoring average and playing time went down when he started slumping after the All-Star break and after the Thunder acquired veteran forward Caron Butler. Jones was used as a utility man, playing any position not named point guard or center. He showed flashes, but continues to be a mystery because his physical attributes would suggest he would dominate on the court.

The real key will be Adams and Roberson. If they are both tasked with starting, their rapid development will be tantamount to how the Thunder react to their time without Durant. If Adams is able to stay on the floor, that make Perkins and his $9 million dollar expiring contract extremely movable. If Roberson is able to get some semblance of offense, his perimeter defense will take some of the pressure off Westbrook, so he can focus on offense. The young’ins have stepped up before. They’ll be expected to do it again.

3. Kickstart to Westbrook’s MVP campaign – This is probably the most exciting part of Durant sitting out the first month of the season. I mean, the Durant sitting part isn’t exciting. But if you’re going to find a silver lining, it’s the fact that we finally get to see what a Westbrook-led Thunder team can do. And no, I do not subscribe to the train of thought that Westbrook will go all Iverson on us and jack up 25-30 shots per game. Instead, I think Westbrook will beautifully manage games, attacking when needed and distributing whenever available.

westbrook mvp

In last season’s playoffs, Westbrook was probably the 2nd best individual player in the playoffs. In 19 games, Westbrook averaged 26.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.1 assists, and 2.2 steals, while outplaying the likes of Mike Conley, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker. The MVP talk for Westbrook for the upcoming season hit an uptick during those playoffs. But the reality was that Westbrook would probably never win an MVP with Durant in tow. But now, with Durant out of the picture for a stretch, Westbrook could toss his name into the MVP discussion. Other than LeBron’s homecoming, there’s no better narrative than Westbrook doing for the Thunder this season, what Durant did for them last season. Which is, carry them for long stretches and come up with game winning plays. I’m prepared to see games where Westbrook forces the issues and shoots 3-21 with 5 turnovers and the Thunder get blown out by 25. But I’m also prepared to see games like Game 4 of last season’s Western Conference Finals (40 points/ 10 assists/ 5 rebounds/ 5 steals) or Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals (43 points/5 assists/ 7 rebounds). The Westbrook Experience is just beginning.