Tag Archives: Steve Nash

Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns preview (Game 62 of 82)

westbrook tucker durant bledsoe thunder suns

  • When: Thursday, 06 March 2014 at 8:00 PM CST
  • Where: US Airways Center, Phoenix, AZ

With their recent 6 game home stand behind them, the Thunder hit the road for the first time since February 13th. With 21 games left, the final quarter of the regular season is about positioning and health. With two starters down because of injury, it’s the Thunder’s depth (and their two superstars) that has been their saving grace. Having the ability to spring a player like Perry Jones III or Andre Roberson off the bench to be a starter is a luxury most teams do not have. Bringing a player that has only logged 44 minutes the entire season, only to have him play 53 quality minutes over the next 3 games like Hasheem Thabeet has, is a testament to the Thunder’s “next man up” philosophy.

This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams. The Thunder, and the Phoenix Suns for that matter, have come a long way from that early November game. In that game, which the Thunder won 103-96, Russell Westbrook made his regular season debut after missing the last 9 games of the playoffs the previous season and the first two games of this season.

The Opponent

frye dragic morris green suns

The Thunder’s last opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers, were what the Phoenix Suns were supposed to be this season. Heading into this season, many thought the Suns would be one of the main contenders for the Number 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Suns even appeared to be playing the part of a tanking team before the season started by trading starting C Marcin Gortat, PG Kendall Marshall, and SG Shannon Brown to the Washington Wizards for Emeka Okafor, who was probably going to be out for the season with a neck injury, and the Wizards’ 2014 1st round pick (that was top 12 protected). Then the season started, and something weird happened. First year coach Jeff Hornacek allowed the team to play to its strengths, instead of trying to integrate his system. The Suns won 5 of their first 7  games with a run and gun style that is very reminiscent of the “7 Seconds or Less” Suns of a couple seasons back that featured Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Instead of Steve Nash, the Suns have the two-headed combo guard duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. And instead of Amare Stoudemire, they have Miles Plumlee and Channing Frye. They’ve kept on winning, and currently find themselves with a record of 35-25, good for 7th in a tough Western Conference. They are a rag-tag bunch of good athletic players that were mostly cast-offs from their previous teams. Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker are perennial journeymen who have seen their NBA dreams take them to different leagues in different countries, the Morris twins have been reunited, and Leandro Barbosa has found the fountain of youth in Phoenix (actually, its probably just Phoenix’s medical staff working their old man shaman magic).

Probable Starting Line-ups

Phoenix Suns

  • PG – Goran Dragic
  • SG – Gerald Green
  • SF – P.J. Tucker
  • PF – Channing Frye
  • C – Alex Len

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Perry Jones III
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Battle of Rookie Big Men – This past draft was touted to be one of the better ones to find a quality big man. Alex Len, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Mason Plumlee, and Gorgui Dieng are all playing rotational minutes for NBA teams. Nerlens Noel would be playing if it wasn’t for his recovery from an ACL tear. This is the first regular season match-up between the two rookie centers. They met in the preseason and Len was a DNP-CD in their first meeting of the season.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Phoenix Suns

2. Perimeter Defense – Phoenix is not afraid to jack up the 3’s. They are top 3 in 3-point field goals made and in the top 10 in 3-point FG%. They have a bevy of shooters (Frye, Green, Marcus Morris, Tucker) and a great paint attacker in Dragic. This is where the Thunder can lose this game.

3. Bench – Phoenix has been decimated recently by injury. Miles Plumlee, Leandro Barbosa, and Eric Bledsoe will all miss the game due to injury. While the Thunder have their own injury issues to deal with, they have better depth and should be able to take advantage of this. For the second straight game, the Thunder welcome another player, as recently signed D-Leaguer Reggie Williams will be active for tonight’s game.

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Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Lakers preview (Game 55 of 82)

durant young thunder lakers

  • When: Thursday, 13 February 2014 at 9:30 PM CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

There was once a time when the Thunder looked up at the Los Angeles Lakers. A time when mostly everyone knew that they would have to go through Kobe Bryant and the Lakers if they wanted to seek NBA supremacy. That time, seems but a distant memory now. What once was a match-up you circled on the calendar is now just another game.

This is the 2nd of four meetings between these two clubs. The Thunder have dominated the series in the past 3 seasons, going 10-3 in the last 13 games between these two teams, to include the playoffs. It’s a clear case of one team’s window opening at the same time of another team’s window closing.

The Opposition

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Injuries. Injuries. Injuries. That’s all you have to say about the Lakers’ season. It started with Kobe Bryant rehabbing from a torn Achilles at the beginning of the season. It has since trickled down to 6 players being on the injured list (to include Bryant, again), and led to one of the rarer moments in sports, when an NBA team only had 4 players available after their 5th active player fouled out and 2 other players got injured. The Lakers are currently 18-34 and are probably reaching the point where they start to become sellers in the market. Their injury list includes 3 future Hall of Famers (Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash) and 3 good perimeter players (Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, and Jodie Meeks). The survivors include Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, probably the only players on the team capable of generating any offense on their own. Kendall Marshall has shown to be a capable game manager, but still lacks as far as offensive production. Up front, Jordan Hill has shown flashes, but is still a bit too inconsistent. The bench…LOL, what bench?.

Probable Starting Line-ups

Los Angeles Lakers

  • PG – Kendall Marshall
  • SG – Steve Blake
  • SF – Wesley Johnson
  • PF – Shawne Williams
  • C – Chris Kaman

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Trap Game Potential – An emotional win in Portland and the All Star break coming up. This game has all the markings of a trap game. Even though Los Angeles is currently a wounded animal, they still have players that can score if given the chance.

2. Durant and Thabeet – I’m hoping Durant gives one more virtuoso performance before the All Star break. And I hope that performance includes him sitting much of the 4th quarter. And I hope Hasheem Thabeet get double digit minutes.

thabeet kelly thunder lakers

3. Great 1st half – This turned out to be a great first half of basketball for the Thunder. Hopefully everyone rests up and prepares for the second half of the season.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 22 of 82)

Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison

  • When: Friday, 13 December 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The Los Angeles Lakers are down this season. Kobe Bryant has looked meh in his first two games back from the torn Achilles injury that he suffered late last season. The Lakers’ bench looks better than its starters. The Lakers have too many injuries.

The narrative could go on and on about how the Lakers have looked this season. And yet, they are still the Lakers, and that player wearing No. 24 is still Kobe Bryant. So there will always be intrigue when it comes to this match-up. Back in 2008, the Lakers were the team the Thunder wanted to knock off the perch. They gave us our first taste of playoff basketball in 2010 and Kobe Bryant has served as something of a big brother to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The roles have now reversed, with the Thunder being one of the top teams in the West and the Lakers clawing to stay in playoff contention. This is the first of four meetings between the two clubs. The Thunder won the season series last season 3-1, winning by an average of almost 13 points in those three victories.

The Opponent

kobe meeks henry lakers

The Lakers currently find themselves at 10-11, in 13th place in the Western Conference. They are a Mike D’Antoni-coached team, but without the weapons to make that sort of team succeed. When Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion were running D’Antoni’s system, it was run almost to perfection. But with Kobe coming back from injury and the roster in salary strapped shambles, the results are a team that is 14th in points per game at 101.3, but next to last in points allowed, at 103.5. With Kobe back, and all 3 of their point guards out with injury, D’Antoni is depending on Bryant to run the offense for him. An offense, that this Kobe is probably not familiar enough to successfully run. Joining Kobe in the back court will be Jodie Meeks. Up front, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill will run the high low and may prove to be a difficult match-up at times. The bench was one of the strengths of the team, but injuries and the return of Kobe have negated that weapon. Continue reading Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 22 of 82)

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on the Thunder

kobe durant

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

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

bryant perk

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

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

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

kobe-bryant-lakers

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

kobe_thunder

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

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

Kobe+Bryant

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

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview (Game 60 of 82)

la-sp-ln-lakers-vs-thunder-live-coverage-20130-002

  • When: Tuesday, 05 March 2013 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City OK

When the Oklahoma City Thunder handily defeated the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2nd time in the season on January 11th, I jokingly tweeted that I would only wear my “Beat LA” Thunder shirt for Clippers games from here on out. On their third meeting of the season, though, the Lakers grinded out a hard fought victory at the Staples Center and started their climb towards mediocre respectability. Since that win on January 27th, the Lakers are 11-5 and within 2 games of the 8th spot in the Western Conference playoff race. So with that, I’m currently wearing my “Beat LA “shirt. Congratulations Laker-Nation, you’ve earned by closet’s respect again.

beat la

All joking aside though, this is a big game for both parties involved. With the injury to San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker, the Thunder see this game as an opportunity to make ground on the Spurs in their quest for home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs and into the Finals. Also, this is an opportunity to keep these pesky Lakers at bay, because, truthfully, an 8-seeded Lakers team is a whole helluva lot scarier than an 8-seeded Houston Rockets or Utah Jazz team.  The Lakers, of course, see this game as a must win in their quest to salvage the season and make the playoffs.

2012 NBA - Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers (92-77) - April 16, 2012

The big question concerning the Thunder is the availability of Serge Ibaka. Because of his karate chop of Blake Griffin’s baby factory, there may be a possible suspension upcoming. As of early Tuesday afternoon, though, there has been no word from the NBA offices. If Ibaka is not available for the game, look for Perry Jones III to start in his place. Scott Brooks is not very keen on deviating from his substitution patterns and the Lakers are pretty thin at power forward, with Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill being injured. With Jones III in the starting lineup, Brooks can continue with his substitution pattern of Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet off the bench, with Kevin Durant possibly playing some power forward in the 2nd half. With all that said, though, I think Ibaka skirts by with a hefty fine and no suspension.

Probable Starters

Los Angeles Lakers

  • PG – Steve Nash
  • SG – Kobe Bryant
  • SF – Metta World Peace
  • PF – Earl Clark
  • C – Dwight Howard

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

temper

1. Composure – With the near fracas that formed in the Staples Center, and the recent comments by Kobe Bryant that he would’ve “smacked him (Ibaka) in the mouth,” look for there to be an almost playoff-like, charged atmosphere in the arena tonight. If anyone has followed Kobe Bryant’s career though, you’ll know that he uses psychology more than any other player. That statement was a psychological bait he threw out into the water. It’s up to the Thunder players to keep their composure and not take the bait.

2. KD and Russ – It will be interesting to see how the Lakers start out the game defensively. With Westbrook coming into the game playing the best basketball of his career, do the Lakers start out with Kobe on Westbrook, or do they leave Nash on him? This decision may dictate how KD plays. If Kobe start off on Westbrook, then it’s up to Durant to take over. But if Nash starts off on Westbrook, Durant should take more of the facilitator role and let Westbrook handle the weaker, slower Nash.

Kendrick+Perkins+Dwight+Howard+Oklahoma+City+N4ymZssWmZ_l

3. Perkins – Dwight Howard seems to be coming around from his earlier injuries. He seems to finally be getting into shape and he hasn’t complained about his shoulder. With that said, this is the main reason we have Kendrick Perkins on our team. Contain Howard and that forces Kobe to go into hero-mode, which works in the Thunder’s favor when you have a defender like Thabo Sefolosha.

Phoenix Suns vs. Oklahoma City Thunder Preview (Game 50 of 82)

suns thunder

  • When: Friday, 08 February 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

What a difference a week makes. Last week we were wondering what was going on with the team following a blow up by Russell Westbrook in a blowout win against the Memphis Grizzlies, and a surprising road loss to a bottom dwelling Eastern Conference team (Cleveland). But, alas, it was probably much ado about nothing. The team was probably just road-weary after having played 12 of their previous 15 games on the road. A three game home stand is just what the doctor ordered. The Thunder have responded with two consecutive 21 point victories against quality opponents (Dallas and Golden State).

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On the third game of their home stand, the Thunder will face the Phoenix Suns. The two teams come into the game on opposite end of the spectrum, with the Thunder being the 2nd best team in the Western Conference, and the Suns being tied for the 2nd worst record in the conference. The Thunder currently lead the season series 2-0, but struggled to close out the game in their last meeting. The Thunder only held a 4 point lead heading into the 4th quarter of that game, but Kevin Durant took over, scoring 19 of his 41 points in the final quarter to lead the Thunder to a 102-90 victory.

The Opponent

suns 13

The Suns currently find themselves in the beginnings of a rebuilding process. They aren’t horrible enough to get high draft picks, but they aren’t good enough to be considered mediocre. They find themselves at 17-33, tied for 13th in the conference. They are in the bottom third of the league in scoring (95.3 ppg, 20th in the league) and scoring defense (99.6 ppg against, 22nd in the league). Needless to say, these are not your older brother’s Steve Nash-led Suns. The offensive attack is keyed by point guard Goran Dragic, who leads the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and assists (6.4 per game). The front court is led by the veteran duo of Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola, with both averaging double figures in points and combining for over 15 rebounds per game. Rounding out the back court is the defensive duo of PJ Tucker and Jared Dudley. The Suns’ bench can be explosive, but very inconsistent, with scorers like Michael Beasley and Shannon Brown, and big men like Jermaine O’Neal and Markieff Morris.

Probable Starters

Phoenix Suns

  • PG – Goran Dragic
  • SG – PJ Tucker
  • SF – Jared Dudley
  • PF – Luis Scola
  • C – Marcin Gortat

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

  1. Contain their scorers – Sound like logical reasoning. But Phoenix’s roster is littered with guys that can become streaky and go off for 25 points in an instant. Players like Dragic, Scola, Beasley, and Gortat all have the possibility of getting hot at the right time and scoring a ton of points. Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers about Beasley going off for 27 against them, and leading the Suns to victory after they were down by 10 heading into the 4th quarter.Reggie Jackson, Markeiff Morris
  2. Bench play – The starters will do their thing, but it’s up to the bench players to maintain what the starters do. In the last game, the bench allowed the Suns to storm back at the end of the 3rd quarter to bring the Suns within 4 points. The Suns’ bench outscored the Thunder’s bench 30-19 in their previous meeting.
  3. Do what you do – The Thunder are superior to the Suns in every statistical category. And they are playing at home. If the Thunder do what they do, this should be an easy victory.

Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012-13 Midseason Review

This was supposed to be the year where the Oklahoma City Thunder’s young quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden was supposed to put it all together and finally reach the mountain top. These four young men who had just competed (and medaled) in the Olympics were supposed to pick up where they had left off and continue on their improvement track. From 1st round losers to Western Conference Finals losers to NBA Finals losers, the eventual next step would have been NBA Finals winners. Everyone went into training camp with that mind set.

Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant

And then, 5 days before the season started, in the middle of a stirring football game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, came the shocking news that one of the quartet had been traded. James Harden, whose contract extension talks had stalled with the team, was traded, along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and 3 draft picks. It took several days before the jaws of Oklahomans throughout the state were picked up off the ground.

Once the shock wore off, and the trade was analyzed, it was one of those instances where it was a good trade for both teams. The Thunder got a comparable player in Martin, a good young guard in Lamb, assets in the form of draft picks, and salary cap flexibility. Championship contending teams usually never have assets and salary cap flexibility, but this trade gave that back to the Thunder before they had an opportunity to lose it. Houston, in return, got a franchise player in Harden. After clearing cap space and failing to land Dwight Howard in the offseason, the Rockets were chomping at the bit for a franchise-type guy. So far, it’s been a win-win for both teams.

kmart lamb

Whether we were ready for the season or not, it still had to be played. The schedule doesn’t care whether the Thunder made a big roster move five days before the start of the season. The schedule doesn’t care that the Thunder never got the opportunity to play any pre-season games with any of its new players. All the schedule decrees is that said team be at the location of the game with at least 8 dressed players. So with that, the Thunder embarked on the first half of the season.

November 1st, 2012 – November 4th, 2012 : The sky is falling!!!! Grab the women and children, and head to higher ground!!!!! (1-2)

After the core rattling trade five days prior, the Thunder had to open their season on the road against their Western Conference Finals opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. The game was back and forth most of the night with neither team controlling the game. In the final minute with the Spurs down by three, Tony Parker hit a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to tie the game. On the Thunder’s next possession, with the opportunity to take the lead, Russell Westbrook turned the ball over to give the Spurs one final shot. Tony Parker calmly sank a 21-footer at the buzzer to give the Spurs the victory.

parker

Of course, panic set in after that. Would the Thunder ever win another game again? Is this the beginning of the Curse of the Beard? Would we have won that game had James Harden not been traded? The second game was against the Portland Trailblazers in Oklahoma City. The Thunder easily dispatched of the Trailblazers in expected fashion. But that did little to quell the panic of the fan base, especially when Harden was in Houston averaging 35.3 points per game after the first three games of the season.

harden

The Thunder entered the third game of the season with high hopes. But after 21 turnovers and an inability to make shots in the second half, the Thunder lost to the Atlanta Hawks to bring their record to 1-2. Needless to say, some in the fan base were ready to jump off of the Devon Energy Tower.

Novemeber 6th, 2012 – November 23rd, 2012: Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. (8-2)

This home heavy stretch against lesser opponents is just what the doctor ordered, not only for the team, but also for the fan base. After the Atlanta loss, the Thunder reeled off five straight win against 3 likely lottery teams (Cleveland, Detroit (x2), and Toronto), and one injury ravaged team (Chicago). It’s almost like the team had a mini training camp with these 5 games serving as preseason games. The players got a sense of what their roles were, and the coaching staff got a sense of how the rotation would work.

team

Then we played the Memphis Grizzlies, and got man-handled. The big boys (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) did work inside and Rudy Gay went all KD on the Thunder, hitting seemingly every big shot in the 4th quarter. The fear that engulfed the fan base at the beginning of the season changed from, “When will we win a game?” to “Will we be able to hang with the top teams in the West?”

Those fears were eased a little when the Thunder won their next 3 games, the final two being against Western Conference playoff hopefuls Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Against the Warriors, Kevin Durant notched his first career triple double with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Thunder went on the road and lost against the Boston Celtics after that in a close game. Overall, the feeling at this point in the season is that the Thunder were starting to get it together, but still had some kinks to work out.

November 24th, 2012 – December 19th, 2012: We’re going streaking!!!!! (12-0)

This is where the team seemed to put it all together. During this stretch of games, the Thunder beat their opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. The team averaged 108.6 points per game. That is an astonishing run. The winning percentage of the teams that the Thunder beat during this streak was .477, not necessarily power house numbers, but not necessarily the Sisters of the Poor, either.

There were some very important things that happened during the streak:

1)      We completely emasculated a team. In the second game of the streak, the Thunder beat the Charlotte Bobcats 114-69. The Bobcats were riding high coming into the game at 7-5, the same amount of victories as the previous season. The young Bobcats were looking to show what they could do against one of the big boys in the league. And the Thunder just beat them with their own stick. To a team that was still feeling itself out, this victory is just what they needed to prove to themselves that they could still run somebody out of the gym if necessary. The beating was so bad for the Bobcats that they did not win another game for the next month (17 games total after that).

2)      In the next game, the Thunder exorcised any demons from the trade and beat James Harden and the Houston Rockets handily, 120-98. While the game started off as a walk down memory lane, it quickly turned into an “us versus them” mentality when Harden had a spat that momentarily had Hasheem Thabeet ejected from the game. After that, Harden became another opponent that received boos. And the cherry on the top was that Harden completely struggled against the Thunder shooting 3-16 for 17 points, well below his average.

harden thabeet

3)      We dominated the Los Angeles Lakers at home 114-108. I know these aren’t the Lakers from a couple years ago. But this was the superteam that was constructed in the offseason to battle the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy. When Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were added to the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, it sent shockwaves through the league that this would be the new team to beat. Though chemistry issues have kept the Lakers from achieving this, it was still good to beat them and let them know that we still run the West.

4)      We beat the Spurs handily at home 107-93. With the Lakers struggling, this team is probably our biggest rival. With the Western Conference Finals last season, and the close game the Spurs won to start the season, this was a pivotal matchup for the Thunder, not only record-wise, but mentally also.

December 20th, 2012 – January 7th, 2013 – Holiday sputter (5-4)

It’s a funny thing about perspective. If I were to tell you that we’ve won 17 of our last 21 games, you’d probably think that’s a pretty good run. But, if I told you that we’ve lost 4 of our last 9 games, you’d probably think that we are struggling a bit. This is where the Thunder found themselves at this point in the season. After winning 12 in a row, they lost on the road to an upstart Minnesota team that was just beginning to put it all together, before injuries once again derailed their season. Then, the Thunder lost on Christmas day to the Miami Heat. The one monkey that still hangs on the team’s back is the ability to consistently beat Miami.

russ miami

After the Miami loss, the Thunder went on to win 5 of their next 7. One of the losses was against the Davids of the NBA, or as I like to call them, the Washington Wizards. This Wizards team, with the worst record in the NBA, always seems to play its best against the Goliath’s of the league. They’ve already beaten the Heat once this season, and they beat the Thunder last season also. It’s just something about that slingshot.

January 9th, 2013 – January 20th, 2013 – Wonder Twins activate! (6-1)

This is what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done in the past 7 games:

  • KD – 35.9 points / 6.1 rebounds / 4.1 assists /1.7 steals / 1.3 blocks per game
  • RW – 29.0 points /6.7 rebounds /7.1 assists /1.0 steal per game

What these two guys have been doing the past two weeks has been nothing short of dominant. Durant had a career high 52 points in a win over the Dallas Mavericks during this stretch. And Westbrook has notched 4 straight games of 30 points or more. It’s become a tradition that when the Thunder trade away a major player, someone steps up in his place. When Jeff Green was traded two seasons ago, Serge Ibaka and James Harden stepped up their games and the Thunder continued improving. This time around, when Harden was traded, Ibaka has elevated his game to another level, and the two superstars have gotten even better.

durant-westbrook

The Thunder ended the first half of the season with a 32-9 record, good for best in the league. They are the last team with single digit losses and have the best scoring differential in the league, at +9.0. Looking forward, the second half of the season will be a little bit tougher, though. The Thunder will have 3 more road games and the teams they’ll be facing have a combined .511 winning percentage. In the end, I see the Thunder ending up with the number 1 seed, not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA with a 63-19 record.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers Preview (Game 36 of 82)

russ 4

  • When: Friday, 11 January 2013 at 9:30 CST
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

So the Los Angeles Lakers stand at 15-20, losers of five in a row, and in 11th place in the Western Conference. Even at their lowest, a game against the Lakers still includes bright lights and heightened exposure. Lakers fans and the NBA, as a whole, seems to have gone all “Chicken Little” with the Lakers’ current state, and yet, there remains an aura of hope that they will begin to click and reel off wins. So far, though, the Mike D’Antoni era Lakers have performed well below expectations.

 The Oklahoma City Thunder come into the game with a 27-8 record, having defeated the injury-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves, 106-84, in their last game. Since losing to the Lakers in the 2010 playoffs, the Thunder are 8-4 against them to include a 4-1 series drubbing in the second round of last season’s postseason. The Thunder defeated the Lakers in their first meeting of this season 114-108. Russell Westbrook set the tone in that game, going for 27 of his 33 points in the 1st half. Durant punctuated the 2nd half of that game with 18 of his 36 points. Kobe Bryant scored 35 points for the Lakers, who were without Pau Gasol.

 The Opponent

lakers2012-2013

 The Lakers are currently a team in disarray due to various reasons. First off, injuries have depleted the front line, with Dwight Howard (shoulder/back), Jordan Hill (hip), and Pau Gasol (concussion/knees) missing time recently. Secondly, the coaching change from Mike Brown to D’Antoni changed the entire system that was being run by the Lakers in the first month of the season. Thirdly, the chemistry is still under construction with the influx of new players, new coaches, and new systems. Fourth, the defense has been terrible, allowing 101.7 points per game, good for 26th in the NBA.

 The back court is an array of All-Stars, former MVP’s, and future Hall of Famers. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may be just a tad bit slower, but are still great at what they do. Kobe is leading the league in scoring at 30.1 ppg and Nash is still dishing out almost 9 assists per game. While still a physical defender, Metta World Peace’s dwindling athleticism has begun to affect what he is primarily on the court for. With Howard out, look for either Gasol or Robert Sacre to man the middle. The bench has been another issue for the Lakers, as the player they have do not match the system they want to run.

 Probable Starters

 Los Angeles Lakers

  •  PG – Steve Nash
  • PG – Darius Morris
  • SG – Kobe Bryant
  • SF – Metta World Peace
  • C – Pau Gasol

 Oklahoma City Thunder

  •  PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

 3 Keys To Victory

Ibaka-Perkins

  1. Weather the Storm – I have a feeling the Lakers are going to come out guns-a-blazing to start off the game. Kobe let World Peace do much of the scoring early in their previous game and that partially led to them being down 9 by halftime. Kobe will come out gunning, Nash will come out assisting, and you know some bench/unknown player (Earl Clark, Jodie Meeks) will erupt from 3 point land against us. If they get past the initial onslaught and stay defensively disciplined, the Thunder should be okay.
  2. Control the glass – With Howard definitely out and Gasol and Hill questionable, there should be no reason why the Thunder don’t win the battle of the boards by at least 8. One of the worst things to give an injured, struggling team is extra possessions.
  3. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – I don’t know what it is about these two when they play against the Lakers, but they seem to relish destroying this team. This game has Westbrook written all over it. I would think that the Lakers would start the game off with Kobe on Westbrook, but if they dare put Nash on him, watch out. Nash has lost a step or two this season, and Westbrook is one of the fastest athletes in the league.

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!!!!!!!