Tag Archives: Rashard Lewis

Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat preview (Game 47 of 82)

lebron james kevin durant thunder heat

  • When: Wednesday, 29 January 2014 at 6:00 PM CST
  • Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL

Game 47 of 82. Just another game, right? WRONG! All the players and coaches will say the same clichéd “this game is no different than the rest of them”. But they are lying to you. This game is very important for a myriad of reasons for both teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the hottest team in the league right now and the Miami Heat are the hottest team in the NBA this decade.

The NBA always prides itself in pitting the best players (and their teams) against each other. Unfortunately, a rash of injuries have prevented that from happening consistently this season. But here is where the NBA finds itself a few weeks before the All-Star break. The Pacers and Trailblazers both have great underdog stories. The Spurs are like that old guy at the YMCA that consistently drains mid-range jumpers while sporting 2 knee braces and goggles. But the NBA knows what it wants…the two best players pitted against each other. Luckily, the two best players are also possibly on the two best teams and have a possibility of meeting in late May/early June (health permitting, of course).

This is the first meeting of year between these two championship contenders. Dating back to Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals, the Thunder have lost 6 straight games to the Heat. Taking Game 5 of the Finals out of the equation, each game has come down to the final minutes of the 4th quarter. The two teams will meet again the Thursday after the All Star break.

The Opponent

miami heat harlem shake

The Miami Heat find themselves at 32-12, two and a half games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They, of course, are the winners of the last two NBA championship and feature the winner of the last 4 of 5 MVP awards, Lebron James. Many have said that the Heat are currently coasting and not necessarily playing their best ball. I honestly don’t blame Miami, though. They’ve played in the last 3 NBA Finals, so their extended schedule may feel like they’ve played 4 seaons in 3 years. Add to that the fact that the major players on the team also participated in the Olympics during that span, and you can see why they might be coasting a bit this season. Regardless of coasting, the Heat are still in the top 10 in points scored and points allowed. Their Achilles heel may be rebounding where they rank dead last in the league. The Heat are led by their big 3 of James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. All three are performing at high levels with Wade having to implement a resting plan due to knee issues. Their offense depends greatly on dribble penetration and 3-point shooting. The Heat are in the top half of the league in made 3-pointers (8.1 makes/game), and make them at a high clip (37.4%, good for 7th in the league). James and Wade are usually the dribble penetrators who dish out to a bevy of shooters in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers. The bench is veteran-laden and can be dangerous at times, with Norris Cole, Michael Beasley, and Chris Andersen providing the relief.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Miami Heat

  • PG – Mario Chalmers
  • SG – Dwayne Wade
  • SF – Lebron James
  • PF – Shane Battier
  • C – Chris Bosh

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Scott Brooks – Will he adjust his line-up accordingly to combat Miami’s use of space or will he stubbornly stick with the line-up he’s always used? That will be the question heading into the game. I have no doubt that Brooks will adjust his line-up throughout the game after the first 6 minutes of the 1st quarter and the first 6 minutes of the 3rd quarter. But, the starting unit has had its issues with the Heat coming out of the gate. In the past six games against the Heat, the Thunder have yielded 31 points to the Heat in the time it takes from Perkins to be substituted out of the game. That’s an average of over 5 points that the team has to continuously claw their way back from early on. That’s takes a toll on a team heading into the final quarter.

perkins brooks thunder

And let me reiterate…I’m not putting this on Perkins. He is great against traditional post players and that may come into play if the Heat begin to use Greg Oden more often. But putting Perk on Bosh is just a bad match up and causes the defense to over correct and compensate for defensive lapses leading to open threes and blown coverages.

2. Picking your poison defensively – The Heat are going to do one of two things: either drive the basketball or dish it out for a perimeter shot. James and Wade are great at getting into the lane and sucking in the defense. Once in the lane, their options open up like a Golden Corral buffet. They are extremely adept at finishing (even with contact) or they can pass it out to one of their 3-point shooter or to Bosh for the mid-range shot.

The key is to try to stay in front of James. Kevin Durant is the best defender against James as his length bothers him, but that sometimes means that you are exposing KD to foul trouble. To combat this, the Thunder will shuffle defenders against Lebron, sending Sefolosha, Ibaka, or maybe even Perry Jones to guard James in order to ease the load on Durant.

When the ball is kicked out, the Thunder need to hustle back to the 3-point line and use their long wingspans to their advantage. This is where it may be advantageous to have Jackson on the floor due to his wingspan.

3. MVP – Will the MVP race be decided today? Probably not. It is currently Durant’s to lose. But if James defeats Durant, the national narrative will probably begin to change in favor of James. The stats mean nothing if your team is constantly losing to the team the competitor is on. If Durant truly is tired of coming in 2nd, tonight will go a long way to changing that narrative.

durant james thunder heat

(Bonus) 4. Getting the gorilla off the Thunder’s back – Even though it doesn’t count until June, the Thunder need to exorcise some demons in regards to their futility against the Heat. Regardless of whether the Thunder are missing their second best player or not, they’ve been playing in a fashion that if they do lose this game, it will still be a disappointment. For the psyche of the team moving forward, they have to win one of these next two games against Miami.

Growing Pains: The Thunder’s young bench

jeremy lamb reggie jackson thunder

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

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

kevin martin hasheem thabeet eric maynor thunder

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

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

perry jones thunder

 

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

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

steven adams griffin thunder clippers

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

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

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.

OKC Thunder: Training Camp Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion…..one more week!!!!!!!

What offseason? Basketball Never Stops!

As a fan of the game, I’ll watch any basketball game you have on the television, especially playoff games. But there’s a slight disconnect when your team is not involved. It’s not as emotionally taxing. With that said, I’ve never enjoyed basketball as a connected fan all the way into mid-June. Though I’m disappointed that we lost in the Finals, its fun to look at the calendar and know that in 3 months, training camps should begin to open up. I’ve forgotten what it feels like for the season to be over in mid-April. But this all leads us to the offseason. Time to rest and recover from the grind of the season. Oh, I forgot we have the draft coming up. And then we have Summer League. And all the offseason moves and transactions. All the while, we have the national team gearing up to defend its gold medal in this summer’s Olympics. What the hell does the off in offseason mean?

There’s a saying that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. The things that happen after the All Star break, such as trades and the signing of recently released players, can have a big impact on the rest of the season and the postseason. The Thunder have been the beneficiary of both of these player transaction moves in the past two season. Two seasons ago, at the trading deadline, the Thunder traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for starting center Kendrick Perkins and ultimate cheerleader Nate Robinson. Then, last season, they signed point guard Derek Fisher off waivers after he was released from the Houston Rockets. Due to the team’s stability, the Thunder usually remain pretty quiet during the offseason, though.

2012 NBA Draft

This offseason, though, the moves have been quiet, but plentiful. Heading into the draft, the Thunder’s only draft pick was the 28th pick in the first round. When you are picking this late in the draft, this usually means your team already has the necessary players to succeed. For a team as set as the Thunder, there wasn’t an immediate need that any player chosen this late was going to provide. One of the biggest needs the Thunder had was a big that was agile enough to defend other athletic bigs while being able to score from the outside and inside. Players with this skill set don’t usually last this long in the draft. The thinking was that the team would draft either an athletic wing or an overseas player that would be stashed in Europe for a couple of seasons.

Sometimes, though, the stars and planets align, and a player you were needing all along falls into your lap. There was always concern about Perry Jones III’s work ethic. The word ‘motor’ usually came up when his draft status was discussed. But, no one could deny the potential he had. The description of a 6’11” athletic forward that could score from outside and inside is the type of player that usually has teams salivating for his services. But a day before the draft, they were reports that many teams were concerned with the condition of his knees. After the recent knee concerns of Greg Oden and Blake Griffin proved to be true, not many teams were willing to spend a lottery pick on a player whose work ethic AND knees were called into question. Surprisingly though, 11 other teams outside of the lottery chose to pass on Jones III also. So when the Thunder’s name came up, Thunder general manager Sam Presti never hesitated, and went with the best player available, which coincidentally also filled a need. The best thing about it, though, is that it comes at an extremely cheap price.

Orlando Summer League

After the draft, the focus turned to the Orlando Summer League, where the Thunder were participating with 7 other NBA teams. As I wrote previously, the Summer League is full of good young players, Fringers, and Dreamers. Some of the players are already guaranteed a spot on an NBA roster and just want to mix in some team-oriented scrimmages and practices during the offseason. Most of the players though, are clawing and scratching for an opportunity to get onto an NBA roster. The Thunder’s roster consisted of 4 guys that, barring a trade, will be on the Thunder’s opening day roster (Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, Lazar Hayward, and Cole Aldrich). The rest of the players were probably not going to make it onto the Thunder’s roster, but could make an impression on another team depending on how they played.

The Thunder finished the Orlando Summer League 3-2. Reggie Jackson played like the most seasoned guy on the team controlling the tempo of the offense and attacking the basket at will. He even gave 2012 NBA Dunk champ Jeremy Evans a taste of his own medicine. Lazar Hayward showed why he’ll be at the end of an NBA bench for the next couple of years. He does a lot of things good, but nothing great. Cole Aldrich’s play was mediocre, at best. For a player that is looking to step up and be the back up center, his lack of improvement was a bit alarming. But, I would ask people to please step off the ledge when it comes to Aldrich’s development. Summer league games are made for wing players. They are glorified street games with refs and NBA assistant coaches on the sidelines. Aldrich will be asked to defend the paint, set picks, and put up a couple hook shots in the regular season. He will be fine. Perry Jones III suffered a sprained ankle in the 2nd half of the 2nd game, but not before impressing with his array of inside/outside skills. He will be in the Thunder’s regular rotation, if not in the 2nd half of this season, then definitely in the 2013-14 season. Other notables were forward Latavious Williams, who needs to be on an NBA roster somewhere, and Garrett Temple, whose play was almost veteran-like.

Off-season Moves

The Thunder has never been a big player in free-agency in their time in Oklahoma City. But in reality, they’ve never had to be a big player. Their main focus has always been on player development. When you have players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, that’s what you put most of your focus on. That came to fruition in the last two seasons with consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals and a trip to the NBA Finals this past season. The Thunder had 3 players that were coming up on free agency and all of them were veterans. Nazr Mohammed, Derek Fisher, and Royal Ivey could have all been signed to cheap veteran deals. But due to their years of employment in the league, even their minimum salaries would have been upwards of $1.5 million. The Thunder chose instead to let those vets walk, and focus on cheaper, younger alternatives. With Perry Jones III signing his rookie contract, that left 2 more spots on the roster.

The Thunder signed much maligned center Hasheem Thabeet to a 2-year veteran minimum contract. Now the difference between Thabeet’s veteran minimum deal and any of the other 3 Thunder players that were up for an extension, is that Thabeet has only been in the league for 3 seasons. For the final roster spot, the Thunder signed undrafted free agent Hollis Thompson from Georgetown to a 3 year contract. Thompson is a sharp-shooter in the Thunder mold (tall and long) that could be a cheap replacement for Daequan Cook in upcoming seasons.

The two signings sent Thunder nation into a tizzy, and not for good reasons. Most were questioning the “lackluster” moves by the team, while the team that beat us in the Finals picked up former All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and one of our biggest threats in the West, the Lakers, picked up a former 2-time MVP (Steve Nash) in their biggest position of weakness (point guard) without giving up a single player. The thinking was that the curse of the small market team was starting to take hold of the Thunder. That the ideology that small market teams can’t attract free agents and can’t spend money like the big boys was starting to rear its ugly head.

I, for one, completely disagree with that thinking. While it would be nice to sign former All-Stars ad-nauseam every offseason, the reality is that that would be bad business in this new NBA. The goal is to try and keep cost down while maintaining a competitive team. If your team does spend into the luxury tax territory, it better be winning. The Thunder have the right components in place to continue winning. The moves they made this offseason were made to keep those components in place. When you start talking about the luxury tax, every dollar counts. And if the Thunder are truly looking to keep both James Harden and Serge Ibaka on the same team as Durant and Westbrook, they are going to have to continue making these cost effective moves. Both Harden and Ibaka will demand deals that get them at least $10+ million per season. And, rightfully so. We’ll be in the luxury tax no matter what, if we keep these 4 players. The payments get more feasible, though, if you are competing for and winning championships.

Another thing that these signings do is maintain the flexibility that Presti loves. These signings not only have low cost-high reward potential, but they are also short term deals. That way, the team isn’t saddled with long-term contracts if the player, in question, either gets injured or doesn’t produce. Also, if someone better comes along, you could cut your losses with the player and attempt to obtain the better option. Cap flexibility is a commodity in the NBA, and Presti is one of the best at maintaining it.

Team USA

As if this offseason hasn’t been crazy enough, you have Team USA preparing for the Olympics in London. Not only that, but the Thunder has 4 representatives in the Olympics (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden for Team USA, and Serge Ibaka for Spain). Durant and Westbrook were near locks to make the team, but Harden was actually a surprise addition after players like Dwayne Wade and Derrick Rose bowed out because of injury. The team torched the Dominican Republic and eeked out a victory against a tough Brazil squad in the US leg of pre-tournament games. After this, it’s across the pond for a couple friendlies and then the real thing. Durant has a possibility of leading the team in scoring, while Westbrook will be the defensive pitbull/offensive sparkplug off the bench. Harden will probably play a role similar to what he does with the Thunder, but to a smaller degree.

As a fan of the game, I love this. Before NBA-TV, the offseason was usually a time to hear about a trade or two, and wait for football season to start. So, even though, this has been a whirlwind offseason, I still appreciate it. When this offseason gets too crazy, I always hark back to the 2011 offseason. Oh, you don’t remember the 2011 offseason? Oh, thats right, because there wasn’t an offseason that year.