Tag Archives: Roy Hibbert

Indiana Pacers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 57 of 82)

westbrook collison thunder west hibbert pacers

  • When: Tuesday, 24 February 2015 at 7:00 PM EST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Six in a row and 8 out of 9. The Thunder finally have a rhythm about them. Russell Westbrook is playing at an MVP level, Serge Ibaka is working more from the paint than from the perimeter, and the new guys are integrating seamlessly. All this with two starters being out (Steven Adams (hand) and Kevin Durant (foot)). The Thunder have marched from a 3-12 start to being up 2 games on the 9th seeded New Orleans Pelicans. With the way this season has gone, you’re almost fearful of getting too giddy to appreciate how the team has played of late. It seems like there’s always some basketball boogeyman lurking around the corner, and I’m not talking about DeMarcus Cousins.

This is the first meeting of the season between these two teams. The two teams split their season series last year, with each team getting a victory on their home floor. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for these Pacers. They were the antithesis to the “Big 3” Miami Heat and were built like the New York Knicks of the 90’s. Unfortunately, when they play the Thunder, all that good feeling goes away.

The Opponent

west hibbert hill vogel pacers

The Indiana Pacers come into the game with a 23-33 record, one game back of 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. Their struggles this season can be directly tied to what happened in early July in Las Vegas. Paul George suffered a horrific leg injury in the public scrimmage for Team USA. Luckily for all parties involved, the sight of the injury was probably more gruesome than the actual after-effects. Bone fractures are easier to recover from in athletics compared to ligament tears. The Pacers, themselves, are very similar to the team that played last season. They struggle on offense (96.2 points per game, 23rd in the league), but are top 10 in defensive efficiency and opponent points per game. A lot like the Thunder, the Pacers are starting to get healthy and are on a bit of a hot streak, having won 6 of the last 7 games (which includes streak-busting victories against Cleveland and Golden State). In the backcourt, the Pacers trot out veterans George Hill and CJ Miles. Hill has played much better of late, after starting the season injured with a sprained knee. Solomon Hill has been much more effective as a starter, than coming off the bench. Up front, the veteran duo of David West and Roy Hibbert continues to pose difficulties defensively for opposing teams. The bench, one of the better ones in the league, is a veteran-laden group that features Luis Scola, Rodney Stuckey, CJ Watson, and Ian Mahinmi.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Indiana Pacers

  • PG – George Hill
  • SG – CJ Miles
  • SF – Solomon Hill
  • PF – David West
  • C – Roy Hibbert

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Enes Kanter

3 Keys to the Game

1. Pace – The Pacers, a lot like the Memphis Grizzlies, like to grind out possessions and beat you in the half-court. They play inside-out with Hibbert and West with Miles waiting for open shots on the wing. Unlike the Grizzlies, the Pacers are prone to turnovers (14.4 per game, 17th in the league). If the Thunder can create those turnovers and turn them into transition opportunities, that will help them immensely in this game. Also, with Westbrook pushing the pace, the Thunder should be able to play their brand of basketball and not the Pacers’ brand.

kanter westbrook thunder

2. Interior Defense – This will be a great test to see how the Ibaka/Kanter duo works defensively. While Hibbert will never be seen as an offensive talent, he and West compliment each other well and will be a handful for the Thunder.

3. Bench – Indiana’s bench is very good and has talent all over the board. Scola is a tough interior cover, Mahinmi averages about 2 offensive rebounds per game, Watson is a good floor general, and Stuckey is prone to scoring outbursts (two consecutive 30 point games off the bench). If the Thunder want to stay in the game, their bench has to put the pressure on the Pacers’ reserves and defend them well.

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Central Division

Central Divison Preview

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

lebron james varejao cavs

Last season: 33-49 (3rd in the Central Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Brendan Haywood – Obtained in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets
  • LeBron James – Free agent signing
  • James Jones – Free agent signing
  • Kevin Love – Obtained in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Shawn Marion – Free agent signing
  • Mike Miller – Free agent signing
  • John Lucas III – Obtained in a trade with the Utah Jazz

Key Departures:

  • Anthony Bennett – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Andrew Wiggins – Traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Spencer Hawes – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • C.J. Miles – Signed with the Indiana Pacers
  • Tyler Zeller – Traded to the Boston Celtics
  • Alonzo Gee – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Sergey Karasev – Traded to the Brooklyn Nets
  • Luol Deng – Signed with the Miami Heat

Season Preview – No other team in the league made as big of an offseason improvement as the Cavaliers. The signing of James combined with the acquisition of Love immediately elevated the Cavs from lottery bound team to championship contender. The additions of Miller and Jones will provide the Cavs with the floor spacing they need to maximize the talents of LeBron, Love, and Kyrie Irving, who just finished an MVP campaign with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. The one thing that can derail the Cavs, besides injuries, is the lack of experience from key players. The Cavs will be putting a lot of the responsibility on four players who have never sniffed the playoffs in their careers (Irving, Love, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson).

2014-15 will be successful if: The Cavs make it to the Finals. Winning the Finals would definitely be icing on the cake, but this team is looking to build experience for sustained future success in the next 5 seasons.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 58-24

2. Chicago Bulls

rose noah bulls

Last season: 48-34 (2nd in the Central Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 5 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Washington Wizards.

Key Additions:

  • Aaron Brooks – Free agent signing
  • Pau Gasol – Free agent signing
  • Doug McDermott – Draft (No. 11 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Nikola Mirotic – Signed Eurostash

Key Departures:

  • Carlos Boozer – Amnestied; then signed by the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Nazr Mohammed – Currently unsigned
  • D.J. Augustin – Signed with the Detroit Pistons

Season Preview – The success of the Bulls rests on the health of Derrick Rose. After basically missing the last two seasons, Rose showed some of the form that made him a league MVP 3 seasons ago during the FIBA World Cup. If Rose comes anywhere close to being that type of player, the Bulls will once again be listed as a championship contending team. The addition of Gasol and Mirotic bolsters a front line that was already one of the better ones in the league. And adding a shooter like McDermott, to bookend with Dunleavy, will make this team even more formidable if Rose returns to form. This team, with a healthy Rose, has a great balance of defense and offense that will lead them far if everything clicks.

2014-15 will be successful if: Derrick Rose remains healthy and the Bulls make it to the Finals.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 57-25

3. Detroit Pistons

pistons drummond monroe jennings caldwell pope

Last season: 29-53 (4th in the Central Divison, 11th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • D.J. Augustin – Free agent signing
  • Caron Butler – Free agent signing
  • Aaron Gray – Free agent signing
  • Jodie Meeks – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Charlie Villanueva – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Rodney Stuckey – Signed with the Indiana Pacers
  • Chauncey Billups – Retired

Season Preview – Last season, the Pistons were an inefficient bunch that relied too much on perimeter shooting from players who weren’t weren’t great at shooting. This season, new coach (and GM) Stan Van Gundy, decided to bring in some shooters to supply that need. Meeks and Butler will provide the spacing that Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe will need to operate inside. In addition, Brandon Jennings will be able to be more of a drive and dish point guard, instead of a “let it fly” point guard.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Pistons make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 38-44

4. Indiana Pacers

paul george injury pacers

Last season: 56-26 (1st in the Central Divison, 1st in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • C.J. Miles – Free agent signing
  • Rodney Stuckey – Free agent signing
  • Damjan Rudez – European free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Evan Turner – Signed with the Boston Celtics
  • Lance Stephenson – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – The story of this upcoming season for the Pacers was written on August 1st, when Paul George broke both bones in his lower right leg in a freak accident during the Blue and White scrimmage for USA Basketball. With that, and the departure of Stephenson, any chance of the Pacers contending in the Eastern Conference went out of the window. Stephenson and George were the only players on the team capable of creating their own shots. This season, the Pacers will have to rely on Roy Hibbert, David West, and CJ Miles to provide any semblance of offense. Hence why I think they’ll struggle this year.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Pacers make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 31-51

5. Milwaukee Bucks

parker bucks

Last season: 15-67 (5th in the Central Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Jabari Parker – Draft (No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jerryd Bayless – Free agent signing
  • Jared Dudley – Obtained in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Damien Inglis – Draft (No. 31 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Kendall Marshall – Claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers

Key Departures:

  • Ramon Sessions – Unsigned
  • Ekpe Udoh – Signed with the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Carlos Delfino – Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Miroslav Raduljica – Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers

Season Preview – Much like the Philadelphia 76ers, this season will be all about development for the young core of the Bucks. The Bucks seem to have their wings of the future in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Parker. This season will be about evaluating the point guard and post positions. The Bucks will win more games this season than last because Parker and Antetokounmpo will make winning plays, but the rest of the team will need to follow their lead.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Bucks’ core shows improvement in their development and they net another Top 5 pick.

Projected 2014-15 Record: 21-61

Scoreboard Watching (2014 edition)

durant westbrook thunder

If you are a fan of a team, you’re always aware of your team’s games. But, sometimes, if you are wholly invested in one team, you tend to miss what out on what is going on around the rest of the league. Last season, I wrote a similar article concerning the other teams Thunder fans should be looking out for as that season closed (namely the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors). In a vacuum, a fan should only be worried about their team. But, in reality, with playoff positioning and/or draft positioning at stake, watching how other teams perform at the end of the season can add some drama to a point in the season where drama is sometimes lacking. This season, there are 5 teams Thunder fans needs to be paying attention to than can affect their near future.

1. San Antonio Spurs

  • Why it matters: The No. 1 seed in the Western Conference (and in the league) is at stake.
  • Team’s outlook: Currently 59-16 (1st in West), with 4 road games and 3 home games remaining.

Serge Ibaka

This is very reminiscent to what happened last season. This time though, it seems like the Spurs are far enough ahead to not have to worry about the Thunder chasing down the No. 1 seed from behind. The Spurs are currently on a roll, coming into the Thunder game having won 19 in a row, and hold a 4 game lead over the Thunder. With their penchant to rest starters late in the season, the Thunder still have a slight chance to catch the Spurs. But it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Spurs will head into the playoffs with the No. 1 seed in the West. One thing to remember is that if San Antonio does stumble, the Thunder own the tie-breaker over them.

2. Dallas Mavericks

  • Why it matters: The Thunder own the Mavericks’ first round pick if it is outside the Top 20.
  • Team’s outlook: Currently 44-31, (7th in the West) with 5 road games and 2 home games remaining

The Thunder got this draft pick in the Harden deal from Houston. There are two factions when it comes to this pick. Those that want the pick this season (slotted to be in the 21-23 range) and those that want the pick to go all the way until 2018, when it becomes unprotected. It will all depend on if Dallas make the playoffs or not. If they make the playoffs, they’ll be one of the top 10 teams in the league, thus garnering a pick in the 21-30 range, which transfers over to the Thunder. If they don’t make the playoffs, the Mavericks will pick in the lottery and will keep the pick.

The Mavericks are battling with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns for the last two seeds in the Western Conference playoff race. Of the remaining games between the 3 teams, the Mavericks face the harder road with their opponents having a .525 winning percentage combined. But the road will not be easy for either one of the 3 teams because, NEWSFLASH!, they all play in the Western Conference. That being said, the Mavericks had their opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the other two teams, but flubbed an 8 game home stand to the tune of going 4-4. Luckily, all three teams play each other in the final week of the season.

I’m torn as to what I want to do with this pick. Part of me thinks that Thunder GM Sam Presti, with two draft picks late in the first round, could package those to move up a couple slots and get a shooter like Nik Stauskas of Michigan. But part of me also wants to see what happens if this pick actually reaches 2018 unprotected. Unless Dirk Nowitzki goes on Tim Duncan’s offseason training program, I see his effectiveness, and that of the Mavs, steadily going down in these next couple of seasons. And hopefully, they completely bottom out in the 2017-18 season.

3 and 4. Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat

  • Why it matters: The only teams that matter in the Eastern Conference
  • Teams’ Outlooks – With a virtual tie for the Eastern Conference top spot, these two teams meet one last time on April 11th. Indiana currently leads the season series 2-1.

heat pacers

With a 2.5 game lead over these two teams in the league standings, the Thunder are in control to maintain home court advantage against any of the East’s top teams if they meet in the NBA Finals. The major issue here is whether the Pacers will give Miami a run for their money and make the Eastern Conference Finals somewhat competitive. While Miami has been surging in the last 10 games, going 7-3, the Pacers have been doing the exact opposite, going 7-10 in their last 17 games.

The jump from being a good team to becoming an elite team is the hardest jump to make in the NBA. Not only do you have to start positioning your role players correctly, but your star players have to start taking that next step. For Indiana, a combination of questionable in-season moves and lack of player progression has slightly slowed that progression from good team to elite team. The mid-season trade that sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen has yet to bear fruit. And the mid-season signing of Andrew Bynum can probably be deemed a failure due to a reoccurrence of knee issues for the center. In addition, Paul George and Roy Hibbert have failed to significantly improve from where they were in the beginning of the season. With this recent slide, rumors of infighting and selfishness have begun to sneak into the vernacular that describes the Pacers. The mental aspect of making the jump from a good team to an elite team is the hardest thing for a young team to grasp, and its currently showing with these Pacers.

The reason this matters to the Thunder is because the Western Conference playoffs are going to be a gauntlet. The first round match-ups will be formidable and the series will only get tougher from there. If Miami is able to skip through the East playoffs easily, and get some rest in the process, that could spell trouble for the team that comes out of the West, regardless of who it is.

5. New York Knicks

  • Why it matters: The Denver Nuggets own the Knicks’ pick for this draft
  • Team’s Outlook – Currently 33-43 (8th in the East), with 3 road and 3 home games remaining.

Looking towards the future at division rivals, the team that has the best chance of getting better quickly is the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets suffered a myriad of injuries this season that prevented them from ever making a run at the playoffs. But with many of those players coming back next season and a potential lottery pick, the Nuggets are in position to get back to their winning ways. If the Knicks make the playoffs, their pick moves down to the No. 15 slot. But if the Knicks miss the playoffs, Denver will be slotted to pick in the 7-9 range, while also having the potential of getting a top 3 pick.

Seeding doesn’t seem to affect the Thunder that much. They know they can beat the Spurs in San Antonio, if necessary. Their main goals to finish this season are to stay ahead of the LA Clippers, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers, and to get/remain healthy. As the season rolls to a close, it’ll be interesting to keep a vested interest in these 5 teams, as their outcomes all have the potential of affecting the Thunder in the near future.

Trains of Thought: Thunder and the 2013 Draft

NBA: NBA Draft

Approaching a draft, there are always differing trains of thought as to whom a team should choose. A team has to analyze what their needs are and if they can realistically draft a player that will fill said need(s). This is especially true if you are holding one of the lottery picks. Teams picking in these first 14 slots usually have a plethora of needs to address. But for a championship contending team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have many of the necessary cogs already in place, a pick in the lottery can be the final piece of the puzzle to get the team over the hump. 

darko

Drafting a final piece is not always guaranteed to get a team over the hump, though. In the summer of 2003, the Detroit Pistons had just come off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and also held the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft, which was loaded at the top. Easy pickings, right? Get the 2nd best player available and you should be set for the next 5 years. But success and good fortune can sometimes make you think you are smarter than you really are. In a draft where the Pistons could have chosen any of Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, or Chris Bosh, they instead decided to go with the experimental Euro-project named Darko Milicic. Even though the Pistons won the championship the next season, it had nothing to do with Milicic, who was famously tagged as the “human victory cigar” due to the bulk of his playing time coming at the end of blowout victories. The Pistons went on to lose in the NBA Finals in the next season and played in 3 consecutive Eastern Conference Finals after that. Add that up, and in a 6 year span, the Pistons played in 6 consecutive ECFs, went to the Finals twice, and won one championship. Nothing is guaranteed, but I think the number of championships would have increased if the Pistons had drafted one of the other players mentioned above. 

Granted, this draft is not as loaded as the 2003 draft was. But the Thunder find themselves in a position to draft a position of need, instead of having to pay for it through free agency or trade for it. There are probably two trains of thought for what type of the player the Thunder should draft with the 12th pick: either a defensive minded big man capable of developing some semblance of an offensive game or a scoring wing adept at making perimeter shots. In other words, either a replacement for Kendrick Perkins or a replacement for James Harden. The big man pick is more targeted towards future success, while the perimeter wing would be for more immediate results.

pacers

The conference finals and NBA Finals have given the Thunder a blueprint as to what they need for sustained success. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers showed what two competent big men can do against the Miami Heat. David West and Roy Hibbert gobbled up offensive rebounds and scored in the paint, almost at will. In the Finals, the San Antonio Spurs have shown that playing the same brand of basketball as the Heat (dribble penetration and 3-point shooting) can befuddle and frustrate them, especially if the opponent is hitting 3-pointers at a 45% clip.

Train of Thought No. 1 – Big Man

perk ii

Everybody knows I love crazy uncle Perk (Kendrick Perkins). For a person who grew up on 90’s basketball, Perkins’ style of play harks back to that physical era. But, truth be told, he laid a complete goose egg in the playoffs this season. He surprisingly had a better run last post season when he played with a torn groin and a torn ligament in his wrist. That Perkins has no semblance of an offensive game is a known fact. But that is usually masked by constant attacking nature of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. When Westbrook went out with his knee injury in the first round of the playoffs, that lack of an offensive game led to the further stagnation of an offense that was already compromised. It wasn’t just that Perkins couldn’t get the ball in the basket, it’s that he was a walking turnover. He had a negative PER in the playoffs and was a liability not just on the offensive end, but also on the defensive end. I didn’t even know negative PERs existed.

Needless to say, with 2 seasons left on Perkins’ contract, it may be time to start looking for his replacement sooner rather than later. Picking up a big man at this slot would be a pick for the future, as big men generally take longer to develop and no post player in this draft has that “ready to play now” look to them.

Before deciding what type of big man could be drafted, it’s important to see what is already in the cupboard. Besides Perkins, the other starter is Serge Ibaka, one of the most versatile power forwards in the NBA. In addition to leading the league in blocks for the 2nd consecutive season, Ibaka also has a deadly midrange game that occasionally stretches out to the 3-point line. His next stage of development should be to learn a post move or two. Off the bench, Nick Collison is a heady post player who plays good defense, can score inside, and can occasionally hit a midrange jumper. The only negative with Collison is that he is getting long in the tooth and starting to show signs of that. Hasheem Thabeet is an average center who is just now learning how to contribute 10-12 solid minutes per game. Perry Jones III is still in the initial stages of his development, but has the physical tools to become a solid contributor. And Daniel Orton is probably the odd man out in the game of big man roulette.

adams noel

Any post player selected will be drafted with the intent to eventually be the starting center. The Thunder tried that 3 seasons ago with Cole Aldrich, but he never panned out. If the Thunder’s system remains similar for the next 3-5 seasons, a player with Perkins’ toughness and defensive chops, but better offensive potential would probably be the selection. Players that fall in that category would be Alex Len, Steven Adams, Mason Plumlee, and Gorgui Dieng. If the Thunder decides to go for an offensive-minded big man, look for them to select Kelly Olynyk or Cody Zeller.

Train of Thought No. 2 – Perimeter Wing

harden

The Thunder have a little more flexibility here than with the center position. When the Thunder made the trade with Houston, they not only traded Harden, but also Daequan Cook. These floor spacers are very important when the bulk of your offense is dependent on two perimeter oriented players. The drive and dish becomes a lot more driving into defensive walls if the dishees aren’t reliable 3-point shooters, especially in the playoffs.

Seeing as the NBA is becoming more of a drive and dish league, having penetrators and 3-point shooters is tantamount to a team’s success. It used to be that if you had a great big man, you were almost guaranteed a deep playoff run. That began to change with the elimination of hand checking. Once that happened, it unshackled quick wing players to have a more prominent role in the offense. No longer were defenders able to keep quicker players at an arm’s length, thus eliminating their speed advantage. Now, defenses had to converge on the quicker players, which opened up shooters on the perimeter, especially on the 3-point line. And, as any kindergartener will tell you, 3 is more than 2 any day of the week.

Looking at the Thunder’s inventory when it comes to wing players, the Thunder already have two of the best dribble penetrators in the league, in Durant and Westbrook. Add to that Reggie Jackson, and the team has their fair share of attackers on the offensive end. What’s lacking on the team is the amount of shooters. Thabo Sefolosha has improved his 3-point shooting to the point where he’s effective, but his slow release make him a liability against teams with long defenders. Kevin Martin was, for the most part, an effective perimeter shooter, but his inconsistency and disappearing act in key games, proved to be a big problem for the Thunder. DeAndre Liggins is on the team for defensive purposes, and Jeremy Lamb was never given a chance to show his shooting chops on the NBA level, though he was very effective in the D-League.

ben-mclemore-dunk

There are two choices for where the team wants to go with this train of thought. One choice is an instant offense type player off the bench. If this is the way the Thunder may be leaning, then look for them to choose CJ McCollum or Shabazz Muhammad. If the Thunder are looking for more of a complete player to eventually take over the shooting guard spot, then the options become Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Thunder will go into draft day with a couple players in mind and counter moves for each situation. In my opinion, the Thunder are extremely high on about 5 players: McLemore, Len, McCollum, Adams, and Oladipo. I think it’ll all be dependent on where the players fall. If McLemore or Len slip down to the 4-6 range, I think the Thunder will throw every possible trade, not involving Durant, Westbrook, or Ibaka, at those teams in that range.

The good thing is that the Thunder have options. Their high 2nd round pick affords them the possibility of obtaining an extra first round pick from a team looking to involve themselves in this year’s free agency. The ability to put a package together with multiple 1st round picks and young players can be very enticing to a team that is rebuilding. Soon enough, it’ll be draft day and Thunder GM Sam Presti will be able to put his plan into play.

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.

The Ghost of Ron Artest

By now, most people have seen and/or heard about the “elbow heard ‘round the world.” A lot of the focus has been placed on the two people involved in the incident, and rightfully so. While that type of violence may be seen in some of the more violent sports such as MMA, hockey, or football, it is rarely, if ever, seen on the basketball court. A game full of finesse and grace has little room for that kind of brutality and unhinged force. The actions by Metta World Peace not only had an immediate impact on James Harden’s sidebeard, but also may have had a reverberating effect 2000 miles away.

Even 7½ years later, the wounds from The Brawl are still very fresh. When I was down in Indianapolis a month ago, I attended a Pacers game and was completely surprised by the lack of fan support. This is a team that is young and near the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference. If there’s a team in the league that is replicating the Oklahoma City Thunder model, it has to be the Pacers. A positive team culture and a young budding core surrounded by good, upstanding veterans.

Even with the attributes of a team on the rise, I still could not find a Pacers shirt at the downtown mall. I asked some locals why they thought support for the Indiana Pacers was waning, while the support for the 2-14 football team was at an all-time high. The most resounding answer was that, to this day, they were still turned off by the Brawl. The next most popular answer was that the team wasn’t even that good. When I told them the team was in 3rd position in the Eastern Conference and a darkhorse contender, the usual response was, “Really? I didn’t even know.”

In a moment of panic, the body sets off its “all hands on deck” response called the fight or flight instinct. In that moment, the body either gears all of its energy towards escapism or violence. In that instant, a couple Pacers players chose fight over flight. It’s amazing how a moment of instinctual insanity completely shattered the view a city had of its basketball team. Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were always known as questionable characters. Loyal to a fault, but ticking time-bombs, nonetheless. Players who escaped their rough upbringings, but whose rough upbringings never escaped them.

The team, itself, was on its way to a probable championship run. It featured Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley in their young primes, Reggie Miller as the veteran seeking his first championship, and a cast of good supporting players. What was a 7-2 start to begin the 2004-05 season, ended in a 44-38 struggle to remain in the playoff picture. While many Pacers fans were initially supportive of their players for sticking up for themselves, many changed their tunes as soon as the suspensions were levied. Many fans wondered whether the selfish actions of Artest and Jackson had cost the team a title.

After The Brawl, things soured between Artest and the Pacers, and he was eventually traded the next season. Adding fuel to the fire, Stephen Jackson was involved in a shooting at an Indianapolis night club that further strained the relationship between the Pacers and their fans. The Pacers had no choice but to go the route of the Portland Trailblazers during their Jailblazers clean-up, and blow the team up. When that happens, though, you can bet on at least 2-3 season of rebuilding, if not more. Horrible teams tend to have a negative impact on fan support, further straining the relationship between the Pacers and the people of Indianapolis.

The Pacers finally made it back to the postseason last year, but with a sub-.500 record. While they were good enough to make the playoffs, they really weren’t THAT good. But this season, with the acquisitions of David West, George Hill, and Leandro Barbosa, and the continued development of Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and Paul George, the Pacers have solidified themselves as the 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference. And attendance and fan support seems to be coming along for the Pacers.

But with all these good vibes, a sad reminder happened on Sunday. A reminder of how one person’s actions can still hold so much weight on the psyche of a fan base. While this probably doesn’t affect most of the fan base, it’s that important final 10-15% that the team needs to be profitable. Those are usually the fair weather fans or the returning disenfranchised fans. With Artest’s actions though, those fans will probably think it is business as usual around the league, and will choose to stay home. Which is a shame, because the Pacers are team on the rise that needs a fan base that is also on the rise.