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The Three That Will Never Be: The Legacies of Scott Brooks, Kendrick Perkins, and Derek Fisher

ibaka perkins durant fisher thunder

As the Oklahoma City Thunder embark on a new season, some of the same things from the past still remains. First off, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook should all be back and healthy. Secondly, the expectations of winning a championship will also be there. But for some reason this season feels different. Not a bad different, just a “lack of familiarity” type different. Something was missing, and that something was three component that had been a part of the Thunder for all or parts for their 7 seasons in Oklahoma City. Those three components were Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, and Scott Brooks.

For 7 seasons prior, one or more of those pieces were always there to provide an anchor of calmness even in the most choppiest of seas. For the first time since the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City, neither of those three will be a part of the Thunder organization. From the time Scott Brooks took over for PJ Carlesimo on November 22, 2008, the organization has relied on his calming demeanor and almost fatherly-like approach to the development of the stars of the team. That approach to coaching is one of the reasons Brooks will be highly sought after once he decides to return to coaching. Teams are always in one of three phases in their developments: rebuilding, learning how to win consistently, and contending for a championship. Brooks mastered the first two phases of that process with relative ease, taking the Thunder from one of the worst teams in the league to championship contending in a four year span. That type of ascension is almost unheard of without the help of a superstar free agent being signed by the team.

What Brooks lacked in coaching acumen, he made up for with his interpersonal relationships with his players. Say what you want about his late-game play calling, but the players on the team would run through a wall for Brooks. Many in the media heap praise upon Phil Jackson for his career, but Jackson was never known as a great X’s and O’s coach. He had great assistants (Tex Winters, Jim Cleamons), and more importantly, great players. But he was also one of the best at managing superstar egos, which falls under the realm of interpersonal relationships. Brooks could have had a Jackson-like career, but lacked great assistants, and his great players were just coming into their prime during his tenure. Instead, Brooks will likely have a Doug Collins-like career as a coach that could have been one of the greats, but just happened to be the coach at the wrong time.

When the Thunder were starting their ascension, most of the upper echelon teams in the Western Conference had All-Star or near All-Star level centers and power forwards. The Los Angeles Lakers had Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. San Antonio had Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Memphis had Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Dallas had Tyson Chandler, Dirk Nowitzki, and Brendan Haywood. Utah had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. To contend in the Western Conference at that time, a team needed a big body in the middle that could defend and rebound. In their early run, the Thunder had a front line of Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and an “even skinnier than he is now” Kevin Durant. They had Serge Ibaka on the bench, but he was still pretty raw during that time and had trouble keeping his fouls under control. It wasn’t until the Thunder met the Lakers in the inaugural playoff run in 2010 that they realized what they needed to continue the upward trend of the team’s development.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 09: Head coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder talks with Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 9, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The Thunder won 118-112. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

At the trade deadline the next season, the Thunder traded Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. Even though Perkins was coming off a serious knee injury he suffered in the previous season’s Finals, he was the defensive anchor the team so badly needed. A couple weeks after arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder extended Perkins for four more seasons. Perkins immediately became the veteran presence the Thunder’s young players needed. He graciously helped in the development of Ibaka, taking his own experience from when Kevin Garnett took him under his wing in Boston and applying that to Ibaka. He gave the team a mean streak they didn’t have before his arrival. He quickly became the locker room buffering agent between all the Thunder’s young players as they learned how to succeed in the NBA individually and as a team (a major downfall of many young, up and coming teams in the past).

He was a great locker room presence. And if he was getting paid $5 million or less, that would have been fine. But in actuality, he was one of the highest paid players on the team and his performance on the court, especially on the offensive end, was often one of the most polarizing themes in sports. The knee injury he suffered while with the Celtics in the Finals the year before sapped the little bit of athleticism Perkins had going for him. While he was one of the best post defenders in the league, he was often a net negative on offense. As the NBA’s moved towards smaller, more skilled line-ups that could space the floor, the effectiveness of Perkins on the floor became more and more muted with each passing season.  When athletic power forwards started masquerading as centers, the need for a hulking presence down low became almost non-existant.

Compounding the polarization of Perkins was the trade of James Harden to Houston. Many thought the reason the Thunder traded Harden was purely financial, as they couldn’t afford to have 4 players on max or near max salaries (Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), along with Perkins’ $9 million annual salary. In addition to the trade itself, the fact the Thunder had the opportunity to waive Perkins under the amnesty provision, provided the framework for the “Thunder choosing Perkins over Harden” frame of thought that many in the media portrayed. In reality, the Harden trade had little to nothing to do with Perkins. Harden wanted to have his cake and eat it too, wanting max money and the opportunity to run his own team.

In the end, Perkins was relegated to being a back-up big in his final season with the Thunder before being traded to Utah for Enes Kanter. His tenure with the Thunder will forever be remembered for his defensive chops, menacing scowl, and “Shaq-tin a fool” moments. But his presence on the team forever shaped the maturation of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. He helped navigate them through their first few seasons of success and kept them even-keeled.

The signing of a veteran is a rite of passage for a team that is moving into championship contending status. A veteran that has been where the players on the team want to be and has played a big part in previous championship games. That veteran for the Thunder was Derek Fisher. At the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Thunder lost back-up point guard Eric Maynor to a torn ACL. The only other point guard on the roster, besides Westbrook, was rookie Reggie Jackson. The Thunder managed for half a season with the rookie taking on back-up point guard duties, but when the opportunity arose to sign a waived Fisher, they pounced on the opportunity. Fisher paid almost immediate dividends as a calming, veteran presence and as a floor spacer.

Fisher went on to be part of the Thunder for the next two seasons after that one. He basically played the same role in each of the seasons as he attempted to capture that elusive 6th championship ring. Fisher never got that ring, but became, a lot like Perkins, a revered and respected figure in the locker room. A championship point guard his entire career, Fisher went on to retire and immediately became the head coach of the New York Knicks who were being run by Fisher’s former coach, Phil Jackson.

There’s a point in every player’s maturation where they eventually become the veteran. They become the guy that “has been there before” or “has seen it all before”. The Thunder brass probably felt like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were ready to take the next leg of their journey on their own. They had grown under the watchful guise of Brooks, under the sturdy hand of Perkins, and under the guiding presence of Fisher to become what they are today. Sure they’ve faced some injury difficulties along the way, but those also have a way of toughening up a players’ resolve.

As fans, we always cheer for the superstars. But true fans cheer for the guys who make it despite their obvious flaws. The guys who are the bedrock over which championship sod is laid upon. There’s a sense of commonality between those players and someone who works a 9-5 and goes home everyday to a family and a mortgage. There’s a very real possibility the Thunder win a championship without any of those three guys within the organization. If that does occur, three of those championship rings better be sealed in a box and delivered to New York, NY (Fisher), Beaumont, TX (Perkins), and northern California (Brooks), because the DNA of any Thunder championship will definitely have the imprint of those three on it.

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Disasters and Opportunities: How Oklahoma City got on the NBA map

hurricane katrina

Its a process that can be both beautiful and scary all at the same time. A low pressure disturbance, which is basically winds that pick up water vapor, intensifying into something so massive and deadly is why mother nature reigns supreme on the respect scale. Usually these storms run their course, while keeping their impact to a minimum on the area they impact. But every once and a while, these behemoths can impact an area so severely, that the ramifications are felt, not only years later, but also in cities outside of the affected areas.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, a city about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.  It struck land as a Category 3 hurricane after intensifying all the way to a Category 5 only 24 hours earlier. As with most hurricanes, the danger didn’t lie in the storm itself, but instead, on the amount of water that was dumped into the area. It is estimated that New Orleans received 8-10 inches of rain over a 4-5 hour period, while also receiving 12-14 foot storm surges from the Gulf of Mexico. That deadly combination of rain and storm surge overwhelmed the aging levee system, which caused it to completely fail. To make matters worse, the natural geography and topography of New Orleans is not very conducive to flooding. The city is already located below sea-level and is surrounded by huge bodies of water (Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River to the east, Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain to the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast).

Once the storm passed through, the devastation become apparent. Over 80% of the city was completely flooded and infrastructure was almost non-existent. Bridges and highways were damaged. Hundreds were dead. Tens of thousands were displaced. The once great city was a shell of itself. As the shock and awe of the situation began to wear off, the reality of the monumental recovery/rebuild quickly shifted to the foreground.

When infrastructure and lives are in jeopardy, sports gets understandably pushed down on the priority list. But the NFL and NBA needed to find contingency plans for the two teams in New Orleans. The NFL season was about 10 days away from beginning when the hurricane struck. Nearby metropolises with NFL-ready stadiums  already had NFL teams, like the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kansas City Chiefs. Many other nearby cities didn’t have stadium capacity necessary for an NFL game. The Saints and the NFL chose San Antonio, Texas as the base for the Saints for the 2005 season, but the Saints only played 3 “home” games in the AlamoDome. Four other “home” games were played in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and one other home game had to be shifted to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Because of all the limbo and travel, the Saints finished the season 3-13.

Unlike the NFL, which only had days to work on their contingency plan, the NBA had at least a month to work on theirs. The biggest question was where the Hornets would be headquartered while the city was being repaired/rebuilt. If this article were a TV show, this would be where the show would feature a flashback. In the mid-90’s, now Oklahoma City Thunder majority owner Clay Bennett was one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs. One of his main duties was to attend the Board of Governors meetings the NBA and its owner has at various points in the season. When that many powerful people are in one room, networking is one of the orders of the day. During those times, Bennett and then NBA commissioner David Stern developed a relationship that would come to affect Oklahoma City in years to come.

stern-bennett-oklahoma-city-thunder

When the NBA started in on their process to find a suitable temporary location for the Hornets, one of the first people to contact Stern was Bennett. The businessman who had roots in Oklahoma through marriage had already convinced the mayor Mick Cornett and other business leaders that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for by the time he made that call. It’s at this point where the show would flashback again. Ten years prior to the events in New Orleans, Oklahoma City suffered its own tragedy. The carnage created by the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building may not have been as widespread as the flooding in New Orleans, but it still affected the lives of many Oklahomans, even still to this day. The bombing became the catalyst to the improvement of downtown Oklahoma City. The City no longer wanted to be known as the “fly over city where the bombing occurred.” Instead, it wanted to compete with the likes of Dallas, Kansas City, and San Antonio in matters of tourism and culture. One of the things approved in the first MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects Plan) was the construction of an 18,000+ seat multipurpose indoor sports arena which originally was known as the Ford Center.

The Ford Center became the biggest selling point for Bennett in his quest to secure Oklahoma City as the temporary location for the Hornets. The 18,203 seat arena did not have a permanent tenant and was readily available for most any day the schedule called for. In addition, the business community stepped up to support the Hornets and cover a lot of the costs from the relocation. With all that in place, Stern and Hornets owner George Shinn made the decision to grant Oklahoma City the opportunity to temporarily house the Hornets for the 2005-06 season. While other cities may have been larger with more resources, such as Las Vegas or Kansas City, Oklahoma City offered no competition as far as pro sports goes and was ravenous in their pursuit to prove themselves on the big stage.

And prove themselves they did. The city took to the team like a fish to water. It was the combination of a young fan base cheering for a young team. Oklahoma City was okay with just having a team, while the team was thrilled to have a crowd cheer for them. For five years prior to the move to Oklahoma City, the attendance for the Hornets had dwindled to about 14,110 people per game. They finished last or second to last in 3 of those 5 seasons, and were worst in attendance the season before Hurricane Katrina hit.

The attendance in Oklahoma City averaged 18,168 as the Hornets went on to finish No. 11 in attendance in the league. The fans got to see Chris Paul’s rookie of the year campaign. They got to see the return of a hometown hero in Desmond Mason. They got to see one of the most vicious dunks ever when Kirk Snyder jumped over (yes, jumped over) Von Wafer for a dunk. They got to see the emergence of David West, who gave the fans three game-winning shots in that one season alone. They got to see a team that extolled many of the virtues they lived by; a team that many thought wouldn’t do well, but instead, stayed competitive throughout the season as they finished 38-44. Most importantly, the NBA decided to give OKC a second season, as the numbers in terms of population size weren’t yet where they wanted them to be in order to support two professional sports teams. The NBA knew that while the fan base for the Saints was strong, the fan base for the Hornets was not quite at that level. Instead of seeing an arena full of empty seats like they had before Katrina hit, the NBA decided to give New Orleans another year to recover, while also providing them some games in the Big Easy to whet their appetites.

chris paul okc

The 2006 offseason was the first offseason Oklahoma City ever got to experience, and it was a busy one at that. The team drafted 3 rookies (Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, and Marcus Vinicius), traded for Tyson Chandler, and signed Bobby Jackson and marquee free-agent Peja Stojakovic. While it was an exciting time to be an Oklahoma City Hornets fan, it was also starting to become bittersweet. When Stern and Shinn commented on the success of Oklahoma City as an NBA city, they always followed that up by stating they were fully committed to returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. Being a Hornets fan in Oklahoma City began to feel like we were the committed mistress in a relationship that would be nothing more than a short-lived affair. The fan base loved their new team, but knew it belonged to someone else.

In the background, though, Bennett was trying to buy majority ownership of the Hornets from Shinn. He would allow Shinn to remain with the organization as a minority owner, but wanted majority rule in decision making. Shinn rejected the offer, citing the NBA’s desire to successfully return back to New Orleans. With that, Bennett set his sights on some other franchise to purchase.

As the season started, the Hornets came out like gangbusters. They started the season 4-0 and got all the way to 8-3 before the wheels started falling off the bike. Injuries derailed the seasons of Stojakovic, Paul, West, Jackson, and Chandler. The Hornets continued to battle hard through the injuries, but were never able to put enough victories together to make any sort of impact, as they finished with the same record as the previous season.

With that, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets once again became the New Orleans Hornets. While the hearts of many Oklahoma City fans were broken, there was another development happening in the Pacific Northwest.

During the season, Bennett purchased the Seattle Supersonics from Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz. The move was likely backed by the league to get a ground swell of support for the construction of a newer, more profitable arena in the Seattle area. When the local owner couldn’t get it done, the NBA tried to bring in the new kid in the NBA circles to put pressure on the Washington legislature to get an arena deal done. Bennett went to Seattle and laid down his plan: he would try to get an arena deal done for that next season (07-08). If nothing was done by then, Bennett would pursue other options. A blind man could have seen from a mile away what Bennett meant by “other options”.

With no arena deal in place, the wheels were already put in motion to try to get the Sonics to Oklahoma City. After a legal battle and about $100 million dollars in relocation fees and lease payments, the Seattle Supersonics officially became the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Disaster begets opportunity. That’s just the way the cycle works. In a Utopian scenario, Katrina never happens, Seattle keeps their team, and Oklahoma City eventually (somehow?) gets an expansion franchise. But that’s not how it happened. Tragedy and disaster happened. Because of that, an opportunity arose. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 75 of 82)

westbrook thunder chandler nowitzki rondo parsons mavericks

  • When: Wednesday, 01 April 2015 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Exactly a week ago, in the preview of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, I wrote that if the Thunder had visions of getting higher than the 8th seed, then that game would be one of the more important ones remaining in the regular season. The Thunder then proceeded to crap the bed in San Antonio (and in Utah two nights later), thus killing any chance the Thunder had of catching the Spurs. But, lo and behold, a week later, the Thunder find themselves in the exact same position. The Thunder currently sit three games back of the Dallas Mavericks with 8 games to play. Win tonight and that number goes down to 2, with Dallas facing a tough schedule in their next 4 games (v. Memphis, Golden State, Phoenix, and @Denver).  While Oklahoma City’s schedule isn’t necessarily a cake walk either, the possibility is there for the Thunder to make up some ground.

This will be the 4th and final meeting of the season between these two cross-state rivals. The Mavericks currently lead the season series 2-1, with each team winning on their respective home floors.

The Opponent

nowitzki jefferson barea parsons mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks come into the game with a 45-29 record, good for 7th in the Western Conference. They boast one of the top offenses in the league (3rd in points per game at 104.1 and 5th in offensive rating), while having a middle of the road defense (21st in opponents’ points per game at 100.9 and 17th in defensive rating). The team has struggled in finding consistency since acquiring Rajon Rondo from Boston on December 20th. Before Rondo, the Mavs were 19-8. Since then, they are just 26-21. Dallas was hoping to get the Rondo that dominated in Boston from 2009-2012. Instead, they’ve gotten the “not fully recovered from knee surgery” version that still believes he’s one of the top point guards in the league. The chemistry between Rondo and back-court mate Monta Ellis has been shaky, at best. From the beginning of the season through January 31st, Ellis averaged 20.5 points per game on 46.1% FG shooting. In February and March, Ellis’ numbers slipped to 16.4 points on 40.2% FG shooting. Some of that could possibly be attributed to a buildup of nagging injuries, but a lot of that has to do with the apparent bad fit of Rondo and Ellis. After struggling a bit in the beginning of the season, Chandler Parsons’ numbers have begun to climb as his role has increased within the flow of the Dallas offense. Even though he’s getting long in the tooth, Dirk Nowitzki is still someone you have to game plan for and not leave open in critical situations. Up front, Tyson Chandler is still churning out double-doubles, averaging 10 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. The Dallas bench is full of crafty vets like JJ Barea, Amar’e Stoudemire, Devin Harris, and Richard Jefferson.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

Dallas Mavericks

  • PG – Rajon Rondo
  • SG – Monta Ellis
  • SF – Chandler Parsons
  • PF – Dirk Nowitzki
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Dion Waiters
  • SF – Kyle Singler
  • PF – Enes Kanter
  • C – Steven Adams

Three Things

1. Defense on Nowitzki – There are three players on the Thunder that can effectively guard Nowitzki. And all three (Kevin Durant, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka) are injured. Hell, the wild card that has been used on stretch 4’s to close out games recently, Andre Roberson, is also on the mend. That leaves the Thunder in a bit of pickle in terms of defending Dirk. Put Kanter or Mitch McGary on him, and the Mavs will either pick and pop him to death on the perimeter or drive around him to the basket.  Adams would probably be the best choice, but putting him on the perimeter can cause problems for the Thunder defense. Perry Jones is too undisciplined and Kyle Singler, who performed admirably against Markieff Morris in the second half of the Suns’ game, would likely be too short. It may turn into a difficult game against Nowitzki.

adams nowitzki thunder mavericks

2. Transition – One thing that usually trumps age is speed. With Westbrook leading the charge, the Thunder should be aiming to get a ton of points in transition. This will keep the Dallas defense off-kilter and will allow Westbrook to not only find openings into the paint, but also find open teammates. We lose this game if Westbrook doesn’t get his assist total into the double digits.

3. Hack-a-Rondo – Thunder coach Scott Brooks has never shied away from using the Hack-a-(player) ploy to try to get back into games. Since arriving in Dallas, Rondo is shooting just 39.4% from the FT line. If the Thunder find themselves in a close game in the 4th quarter, look for them to deploy this tactics on Rondo.

2014-15 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

Southwest Divison

1. San Antonio Spurs

spurs championship 2014

Last season: 62-20 (1st in the Southwest Division, 1st in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy after Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat

Key Additions:

  • Kyle Anderson – Draft (No. 30 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Aron Baynes – Unsigned

Season Preview – Everyone keeps waiting for the Spurs to age, but every year, they come back wiser and better. The reigning NBA champs come back with the entire team basically intact. While chemistry won’t be an issue, a couple of the main players are coming back from injury. Manu Ginobili spent most of the offseason nursing a stress fracture in his leg and Patty Mills had rotator cuff surgery that will keep him out half the season. But as is the Spurs, they will turn that into a positive as Mills will be very well rested when the playoffs start next April.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Spurs repeat as champions

Projected 2014-15 Record: 59-23

2. Memphis Grizzlies

prince gasol allen conley randolph grizzlies

Last season: 50-32 (3rd in the Southwest Division, 7th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder

Key Additions:

  • Jordan Adams – Draft (No. 22 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Vince Carter – Free agent signing
  • Jarnell Stokes – Draft (No. 35 in the 2014 NBA Draft)

Key Departures:

  • Jamaal Franklin – Waived
  • Ed Davis – Signed with the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Mike Miller – Signed with the Chicago Bulls
  • James Johnson – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – The Grizzlies have slowly put together a balanced team that doesn’t entirely depend on the post play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The additions of Jordan Adams and Vince Carter, and the return of Quincy Pondexter from injury should help spread the floor for the big man duo to operate a little easier in the interior. Mike Conley remains one of the more underrated floor generals in the league and Tony Allen is still a premier defensive menace, as we saw in last season’s playoff series against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Grizzlies make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 54-28

3. Dallas Mavericks

nowitzki ellis mavericks

Last season: 49-33 (4th in the Southwest Division, 8th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 7 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions:

  • Al Farouq Aminu – Signed free agent
  • Tyson Chandler – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Raymond Felton – Obtained in a trade with the New York Knicks
  • Richard Jefferson – Signed free agent
  • Ivan Johnson – Signed free agent
  • Jameer Nelson – Signed free agent
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed free agent
  • Greg Smith – Obtained in a trade with the Chicago Bulls

Key Departures:

  • Jose Calderon – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shane Larkin – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Shawn Marion – Signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Samuel Dalembert – Traded to the New York Knicks
  • Vince Carter – Signed with the Memphis Grizzlies
  • DeJuan Blair – Sign and traded to the Washington Wizards

Season Preview – Other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Mavericks probably had the most player movement of any team in the leauge. The team that took the eventual champs to 7 games in the first round, got their defensive stopper in the lane (Chandler), and got an up-and-coming star in Chandler Parsons. The Mavs should be a little better balanced defensively, but that all depends on the health of Chandler. If he misses a big chunk of the season (15-20+ games), the Mavericks could be in trouble defensively. The point guard position is also a question mark, as each of the three possibilities (Felton, Nelson, and Devin Harris) have been starters in the past, but also have glaring weaknesses.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Mavs make it to the Western Conference Finals

Projected 2014-15 Record: 53-29

4. Houston Rockets

harden howard rockets

Last season: 54-28 (2nd in the Southwest Division, 4th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Portland Trailblazers

Key Additions:

  • Jeff Adrien – Free agent signing
  • Trevor Ariza – Free agent signing
  • Clint Capela – Draft (No. 25 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Jason Terry – Obtained in a trade with the Sacramento Kings
  • Joey Dorsey – Free agent signing
  • Ish Smith – Free agent signing

Key Departures:

  • Jeremy Lin – Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Omer Asik – Traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Chandler Parsons – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Jordan Hamilton – Signed with the Toronto Raptors

Season Preview – After striking gold in the last two offseasons, Rockets GM Daryl Morey hit a rough patch this offseason. He traded away 2 of this team’s top 5 players (Asik and Lin) for basically nothing, and failed to resign Parsons, even though the Rockets held his Bird Rights. The reasons they made these moves was an “all in” attempt at either Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. By the time those two players had re-signed with their respective teams, the damage had already been done to the Rockets’ roster. The Rockets salvaged a little life this offseason by signing Trevor Ariza. The Rockets will still win games due to the talent of James Harden and Dwight Howard. But depth will be an issue, and any injury to any of the major players on the Rockets will be a huge blow to the team’s playoff chances.

2014-15 will be successful if: The Rockets make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 47-35

5. New Orleans Pelicans

Jrue Holiday, Tony Wroten, Anthony Davis

Last season: 34-48 (5th in the Southwest Division, 12th in the Western Conference)

Season ended: Last day of the regular season

Key Additions:

  • Omer Asik – Obtained in a trade with the Houston Rockets
  • Jimmer Fredette – Free agent signing
  • John Salmons – Free agent signing
  • Russ Smith – Draft (No. 47 in the 2014 NBA Draft)
  • Patric Young – Rookie free agent signing (Undrafted)

Key Departures:

  • Al-Farouq Aminu – Signed with the Dallas Mavericks
  • Greg Stiemsma – Signed with the Toronto Raptors
  • Jason Smith – Signed with the New York Knicks
  • Anthony Morrow – Signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Brian Roberts – Signed with the Charlotte Hornets

Season Preview – After a great showing in the FIBA World Cup, Anthony Davis is ready to finally take his team to another level. The acquisition of Asik will allow Davis to play his natural position of power forward. On the outside, Ryan Anderson returns from neck surgery and should help space the floor for Davis and Jrue Holiday to operate. The depth of this team is worrisome, and if the injury bug hits again, they could once again struggle to stay above water.

2014-15 will be succesful if: The Pelican make the playoffs

Projected 2014-15 Record: 42-40

5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

stern bennett oklahoma city thunder

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few months, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

“What about Oklahoma City?”

Those four words are probably the most important words ever uttered when it comes to professional basketball in the state of Oklahoma. Those words were mentioned in a conversation then NBA Commissioner David Stern had with then New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn. The context of the conversation occurred shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in September of 2005. With much of the city destroyed and many of its citizens in exile to different parts of the country, the city of New Orleans was in no position to support either of their pro teams (the Hornets and the Saints). As Stern and Shinn were going to a list of contingency plans, Stern uttered those fateful words to Shinn.

hurricane katrina

A lawyer by trade, Stern has always shown the chops to be prepared for any situation, and to be ready with a definitive solution. When he asked Shinn about Oklahoma City, it wasn’t asked as  inquiry. It was asked as rhetoric. Stern knew what cities were hypothetically viable to support an NBA franchise in the short term. People tend to think the only thing needed to support a pro-sports franchise is population and a venue. But there’s so much more to the equation than that. Of course, you have to have the numbers (citizens). The more people in a given area, the more it is likely that 19,000 people will purchase tickets and attend games. You have to have an arena that is technologically up to date (availability of HD cables), and able to produce revenue outside of the NBA product (in-arena restaurants, kiosks, box seats, etc.). The city has to have a business community that is willing to take risks to cover the team’s operational costs if things don’t go as planned. And you have to have a fan base that is starved to support a professional team, no matter what the circumstances or parameters are.

A few months before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, then Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett made a trek to New York to discuss the possibilities of Oklahoma City someday being considered as an expansion or relocation site. He had a brand new state of the art arena and business leaders willing to assist with money and influence. But as Cornett later quipped in an interview with Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, “…the prometrics weren’t in our favor. We had no track record of major pro sports. Stern couldn’t have been kinder, but he left us with no hope for a team.” But alas, every garden starts with but a single seed. Stern, in his due diligence, probably heeded Cornett’s request and did some research of his own.

Some of the businessmen in the Oklahoma City area had previously had dealings with Stern and the NBA, so it wasn’t like OKC was a complete anomaly to the Commissioner. One of those businessmen was Clay Bennett, who once was a principal owner of the San Antonio Spurs in the 90’s and was the team’s representative at the NBA’s Board of Governors. Bennett probably kept the words Oklahoma City within an earshot of Stern every time they spoke. Even though the “prometrics weren’t in (OKC’s) favor” as Mayor Cornett stated, the fact that Oklahoma City was trying (MAPS I and II, Ford Center, downtown renovation), and was constantly being mentioned by associates of Stern probably kept the city in the back of Stern’s mind.

stern shinn oklahoma city hornets

So when Stern proposed that question to Shinn, he knew that he would be met with some opposition. As soon as you mention Oklahoma, most people outside of the region think of 3 things:  The Dust Bowl, the musical, and the Murrah building bombing. A progressive city was probably not on the list of adjectives to describe Oklahoma City. But Stern had already done his research and knew that OKC already had most of the components in place to be a successful temporary relocation site. They had the venue, just enough citizens in the metro and surrounding areas, and the business leaders. All he needed to do was convince Shinn that this would be a viable relocation site.

As is the case with the spirit of Oklahoma, when we are given a chance, we usually shine. When Cornett and Bennett made their presentation to Shinn, he was blown aback with the viability of this option. The business leaders of the City, led by Bennett, provided Shinn with a revenue guarantee. Basically, the business leaders would foot the bill if certain revenue goals were not met. With a new arena, the backing of the City’s business leaders and Stern, and not many other viable options, the decision was made to grant Oklahoma City 35 guaranteed home games for the 2005-06 NBA season.

chris paul oklahoma city hornets

With that, OKC was welcomed into the professional sports brotherhood, even if it was only temporary. And Oklahomans voraciously ate it up. We had always wanted to eat at the big boy table, and now, from out of nowhere, this opportunity was bestowed upon us. Fans came in flocks to attend a New Orleans/Oklahoma City (NOK) Hornets game. The uncertainty of how long the team would stay kept some people from becoming too attached to the team. But even with that, the team sold out over half of its games that were played in Oklahoma City. The Hornets, who had finished last in attendance the previous season, went from averaging 14,221 fans to 18,168 fans, which was a 78% increase.

With the revenue goals, not only met, but vastly exceeded, and New Orleans still in rebuild mode, the team and the NBA decided that Oklahoma City would get another season of Hornets basketball. With that increase in revenue, the team decided to trade for defensive center Tyson Chandler and sign sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic to a near max contract. OKC would get 35 home games, while New Orleans would get the remaining 6 home games.

Attendance started strong, with OKC selling out 6 of their first 10 home games. But when the word came that it was a certainty that the Hornets would return to New Orleans, attendance, understandably, waned a bit. But it was during that time frame, that another domino got put into place.

schultz bennett sonics thunder

After failing to buy a majority stake of the Hornets from Shinn, Clay Bennett decided to set his sights on the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics, and Stern for that matter, had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the city over the viability of their venue, Key Arena. After putting the money up for the baseball stadium and the football stadium, the city was not in the mood to pay over $500 million to subsidize another arena.

The team’s then owner Howard Schultz was losing money because of the team’s lease with the arena, and because of attendance issues. He sold the team to an outsider hoping that even the veiled threat of relocation would send the city into action to build a brand new arena. Instead, the city passed Initiative-91 which prohibited Seattle from supporting teams with city tax dollars. This initiative basically doomed any new stadium being built in the city of Seattle.

Clay Bennett gave the city an ultimatum of 12 months to approve a plan for a new arena. When that time ran its course, he put in motion plans to move the team to Oklahoma City. He was met with opposition and litigation, but in the end, the city felt it would be better if Bennett payed a hefty sum to get out of the lease instead of waiting the lease out and getting nothing in return.

bennett silver stern nba thunder

Adam Silver took over for Stern as NBA Commissioner on February 1st, 2014. But much like the space between presidential election day and presidential inauguration day, the real Silver era doesn’t begin until after the All-Star break. This space in between from Feb 1st – 14th is more of a hybrid era where we praise the exiting commish and wonder what the new commish has in store.

So in this hybrid period, I just wanted to say to Mr. Stern, “Thank you.” Thank you for giving Oklahoma City a chance at proving it’s worth as a pro-sports city. The process of OKC getting a team was a messy mixture of tragedy, finances, and politics. A lot like Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, Stern acted as an objective facilitator to Oklahoma City and helped us step into the world of professional sports.

Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks preview (Game 28 of 82)

durant shumpert knicks thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 25 December 2013 at 1:30 PM CST
  • Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

One of the major storylines heading into this season was the Battle of New York. Who would take the Big Apple: the New York Knicks or the Brooklyn Nets. While there may still be a competition between the two teams, the two teams have woefully underachieved to the point where their meetings are only of regional importance, not national importance. The good news for both teams is that the Eastern Conference is so bad that they are still in the thick of things as far as playoff seeding goes.

This Christmas match up is the first meeting of the season between the two teams. The teams split the season series last season as Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony battled for the scoring championship. Anthony ended up winning the scoring title 28.7 ppg to Durant’s 28.1 ppg.

The Opponent

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The Knicks come into the game with a 9-18 record, which surprisingly finds them only 2 games out of the 8th seed. The Knicks came into this season with high expectations, but the season started in turmoil after JR Smith was suspended for the first 5 games due to a substance abuse violation and Tyson Chandler came down with a broken leg a week into the season. Add to that the unknown that is Amare Stoudemire’s health and the seemingly frayed relationship between the team and SG Iman Shumpert, and you have a recipe for chaos…which has ensued. The Knicks, thought to be one of the more offensively minded teams with Anthony, Smith, and Raymond Felton at the helm, find themselves scoring only 95 ppg, good for 25th in the league. Surprisingly, they are one of the better defensive teams in the league, in terms of opponent’s ppg at 97.9 ppg, good for 8th in the league.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

New York Knicks

  • PG – Beno Udrih
  • SG – J.R. Smith
  • SF – Iman Shumpert
  • PF – Carmelo Anthony
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

1. Perimeter Defense – The Knicks are currently a jump shooting team that isn’t making their jump shots. That doesn’t mean that they don ‘t have gunners on their team that can’t catch fire on any given game. This will be key to the Thunder’s success in this game. Stay on the shooters and limit their opportunities at open looks.

westbrook smith thunder knicks

2. Bench play – With the Knicks bench being so decimated by injury, especially at the guard position, look for the Thunder to take advantage of this with Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Derek Fisher.

3. Wounded animal – Don’t discount the Knicks being at home and playing with a mentality of a wounded animal. Primetime game, MSG, prime Western Conference opponent. You can be sure the Knicks will be giving the Thunder their best shot. Hopefully, the Thunder remember the Toronto game and come out sharper for this one.

To all my readers – Thank you for your support and Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy your day with friends and family, and as always, THUNDER UP!!

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

thunder western conference champs

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings | 5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

The first part of this series focused on the beginnings of the Thunder organization in Oklahoma  City. For the second part of the series, I want to focus on what was the apex for these first five years of Thunder basketball, the 2012 NBA Finals. For a little comparative perspective, there are 9 NBA teams (in their current city/team format) that have never reached the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans have never tasted the fine champagne of a conference championship. I’m excluding the Brooklyn Nets from the list because they’ve only been in Brooklyn for one season and went to the Finals as the New Jersey Nets twice. The proximity of Brooklyn, NY to Newark, NJ (about 15 miles apart) negates a huge change of fan base because of distance. I’m also excluding the Washington Wizards because they made it to the Finals as the Bullets, but decided to change the team’s name in 1997 due to the negative connotation between actual bullets and WashingtonDC being mentioned in the 90’s as the murder capital of the US.

The road to the Finals that season was like the Grateful Dead’s greatest hits album; that is to say a long, strange trip. To begin with, it was a season that almost never was. Although this lockout never reached the DEFCON 4 levels the ’98-‘99 lockout did, it was still nerve-wracking to watch every labor meeting end with the two sides having separate press conferences to disparage the other side. It was like watching your parents, after a nasty divorce, arguing over your custody.

nba lockout

When you are a fan of a team that is drastically improving and just entering the prime of its championship window, the last thing you want is a work stoppage. Anything that cuts into a year of your team’s development when you are close to becoming a perennial contender is the ultimate of detriments. The chemistry built from the previous seasons basically gets thrown out the window if players are allowed to sit for 15-18 months with no access to team coaches or trainers. Not to mention, the veteran players would be a year older and there would be a ton of questions regarding roster moves.

But alas, on November 26th, 2011, after months of hearing about BRI, luxury tax, hard caps, and mid-level exceptions, cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached between the NBA and the players’ union. Instead of playing an entire 82 game schedule, the regular season would be trimmed to 66 games with the first day of the season beginning on Christmas. If seeing your team in the NBA Finals is Christmas in June, then seeing the NBA come back from a lockout was, literally, Christmas on Christmas. Continue reading 5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season

5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings

kd russ

5 for 5: The Longest Shortest Season  |  5 for 5: The Rivalries  |  5 for 5: The Run  |  5 for 5: The Thunder’s Godfather

This past season, the Oklahoma City Thunder completed their 5th season in the state of Oklahoma. In a world dominated by round numbers, getting to the midway point is always a cause for celebration. In any relationship, you look back at key moments that made it possible to arrive at certain anniversary marks. In the next few weeks heading into training camp, I’ll be looking at 5 defining moments that made it possible for the Thunder to not only roar into the Plains, but also to do it in winning fashion.

For the first defining moment, you have to, of course, start at the beginning. But, it’s not the beginning that you think. While the Thunder were established in 2008, the road to having them in OKC began in December 1994. It was during that time that Timothy McVeigh visited and decided that the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would be the site of his mayhem.

After meticulously planning and gathering the necessary materials, McVeigh, and his accomplice Terry Nichols, put their plan into action for April of 1995. They rented a Ryder moving truck on April 15th in Kansas and packed it with its deadly payload on the 17th and 18th. The next day, they drove down to Oklahoma City where, at 9:02 AM, they detonated the 4,800 pound monster that resided inside of the Ryder truck. The blast completely dismantled the north side of the building leaving countless people injured and 168 dead in its wake. It was the deadliest terroristic attack on US soil that the nation had seen up to that point.

okc bomb

Once the smoke cleared though, the choice was clear. We would not stand to be known by the evil of the tragedy, but by the fortitude with which we recovered. We chose to be known by the way we rose together, instead of by the way we momentarily got knocked down. That mindset, which comes naturally to Oklahomans, galvanized us to remember those lost, while also promising them that we would rise stronger than before. The possibilities were there, but the question was how would be we get there?

While the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan (MAPS) had already been approved for by the beginning of 1994, the bombing acted as a catalyst to make MAPS a rousing success. One of the things that MAPS brought with it was a state of the art arena called the Ford Center that could host concerts and sporting events, especially hockey and basketball. Opening in 2002, the Ford Center served its purpose hosting top notch concerts, preseason basketball games, and minor league hockey. Continue reading 5 for 5: Tragedies, Courtrooms, and Beginnings

New York Knicks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 77 of 82)

knicks thunder

  • When: Sunday, 07 April 2013 at 12:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Part of the mission has been accomplished. As I mentioned in this previous article, the goal of the Thunder in the last 5 games was to catch up to the Spurs and at least tie them for the Western Conference lead. Now that that has been achieved, the Thunder hold their Western Conference destiny in their hands. All the Thunder have to do now is keep stride with the Spurs, and head into the playoffs with the number 1 seed.

The first step to that begins against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. With the San Antonio Spurs’ win against the Atlanta Hawks yesterday, they sit a half game ahead of the idle Thunder. It’s your move, Oklahoma City. The Thunder are currently playing their best basketball of season since the 23-4 stretch that began in late November. They’ve beat the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers in convincing fashion with close-out 4th quarter performances from their superstar duo.

The New York Knicks come into the game playing their best basketball of the season, having won 11 in a row. The streak, which is the best current streak in the league, can be attributed to 2 things: Carmelo Anthony (32.4 ppg) and JR Smith (23.9 ppg on 49.2% shooting) efficiently attacking teams offensively, and Tyson Chandler and, new addition, Kenyon Martin providing the muscle on the interior. Their margin of victory during the streak has been 13 points.

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It’s a funny thing that happens when you write about important stretches in a season. I had the last 5 games tabbed as the most important stretch of the season for the Thunder. But after taking care of business, this game now becomes the most important game of the season. It’s important, not only because we accomplished the goal of catching up to the Spurs, but, because, now, New York is the hottest team in the league. And they are winning by using the same formula that has hurt the Thunder in the past: dribble penetration, 3-point shooting, and 1-2 offensive stars that perform within a system. New York has surprisingly become a lot like Miami during this streak, and it will be a good litmus test for the Thunder moving forward.

Probable Starting Line-ups

New York Knicks

  • PG – Pablo Prigioni
  • SG – Raymond Felton
  • SF – Iman Shumpert
  • PF – Carmelo Anthony
  • C – Tyson Chandler

Oklahoma City Thunder

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

3 Keys to the Game

Perimeter defense – With the absence of Amare Stoudemire, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby, the Knicks are hurting inside offensively. Anthony and Smith have actually pushed their games inwards during this streak, but are still very perimeter oriented. Felton is a lot like Andre Miller in that he does his damage by penetrating inside and uses his strength to power shots in. Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, and Prigioni are all ready to shoot 3-pointers at the hint of daylight. As is usually customary with Thunder coach Scott Brooks, when the Thunder get a player that was recently with another team, Brooks usually plays said player extended minutes when it’s against his old team. So, with that said, Ronnie Brewer, you’re up.

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Match-up Land Mines – With the injuries to the Knicks’ front line, they have been forced to play small ball from the outset of games. With that said, do the Thunder really want Serge Ibaka guarding Carmelo Anthony at the start of the game? Or do they want Kevin Martin guarding JR Smith when the bench checks into the game? Or Derek Fisher guarding Raymond Felton? Knowing that Brooks has a very consistent substitution pattern, it will be very interesting to see how the Thunder adjust on defense. As I said before, this is a very good prelude to what Miami and Denver will do to us if we meet them in a future series.

anthony durant

Buckets – The elephant in the room. The scoring title may be up for grabs in this game. Kevin Durant leads Anthony by a tenth of a point (28.4 to 28.3, respectively). With Durant already saying that Anthony can have the scoring title, will team success have any bearing on whether any of these two players eases off the gas when it comes to scoring. Like Durant said, “I really wanted my first one (scoring title). Don’t get me wrong – – I never want to take stuff like that for granted. But if it happens, it happens. I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to force it too much and think about it too much and try to get it.” The only thing for Durant, and Anthony as well, is that their games are about scoring. With as much as Durant has a tendency to stat-watch, will he try to get that extra point to one-up Anthony? Regardless, this game certainly reminds of the scoring title race in 1994, where David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal went back and forth on the scoring title till the last game of the season, where Robinson scored 71 points to finally take the scoring title. We can only hope that one of these two players puts up 50 in the game.

Alternate Reality – Dream Team vs. 2012 Team USA

In collaboration with Akeli Jackson of DYST Media, Steve Person of Hooptalk365.com and Jon Midget of SLCDunk.com.

The debate has been raging all summer long about which team is better: the 1992 Dream Team or the 2012 US Men’s Olympic basketball team. Members from both teams have spoken publically and most have said that the Dream Teamers would be the victors. But the tally hasn’t been 100% on the side of the Dream Teamers. Kobe Bryant, in an interview, stated, “If you’re asking me, ‘Can you beat them one game?’ Hell yeah, we can beat them in one game. You didn’t ask me if we could beat them in a 7-game series. In one game, we can beat them. No question about it.” This discussion was presented for each of the subsequent “Dream Team” teams after the ’92 team, but the discussion usually died down pretty quickly. For some reason, though, the debate for the 2012 team has lingered on longer than it did for any of its predecessors. Maybe it’s Twitter, where the in your face, non-stop commentary sometimes leads to a paradigm shift in thought, even if it’s just for a moment. Maybe, people see a 2012 team that is loaded with a combination of great players and potential great players. Sadly, though, these types of debates usually remain as they are….figments of our statistical imagination. 

 

Fortunately, I have more money than I know what to do with. So I decided to call a buddy of mine who works at an anti-aging clinic. He told me he would be able to revert the older Dream Teamers back to their 1992 form using hormone replacement and gene therapy. Of course, the players on the ’92 squad would have to agree with this. So, that’s where their ego and my money came into play. I got all the players from the Dream Team to sign on by offering them $10 million each and telling them that the 2012 team would wipe the floor with them. Christian Laettner even asked my buddy if he had anything that would bring his “Duke-swag” back. My buddy told him he didn’t have anything to cure failed potential. Surprisingly, Larry Bird required the least amount of work. His body is basically in the same physical shape now as it was then. Unfortunately, the anti-aging clinic didn’t have anything to bring Chuck Daly back from the after-life, so Lenny Wilkens, who was an assistant on the Dream Team, agreed to be the coach. The fine folks at Coachella kindly declined when we asked them if they could have Hologram Chuck Daly walk back and forth on the Dream Team sideline. 

 

After 2 weeks of intense anti-aging therapy, and a month of “training camp”, the Dream Team was looking like its old self again. Magic Johnson was passive-aggresively talking trash, Larry Bird was sinking flat footed 3 pointers, and Michael Jordan was dunking on Patrick Ewing. The game was set up to happen the night before the gold medal game of this year’s Olympics. Only a few writers were privy to the game. Everyone who was witness to the game was CIA-scanned for electronic devices, meaning no photos or video of the game would ever exist. The 4 writers who were invited were each assigned a quarter to write about in detail. No one was allowed to release any information until after the gold medal game. This, is what transpired: 

Pre-Game 

The game would be played using a mixture of FIBA and NBA rules. The quarters would be 10 minutes in length to maximize the athletic potential of all the participants in the game. The FIBA 3-point line would be used, and the painted area used was the standard rectangular NBA format. Players wouldn’t be able to touch the ball on the rim like in international play. It would be counted as a goaltend, if the ball is touched while still on the rim. A team would have 8 seconds to bring the ball up past the half court line. The style of refereeing would be more international, allowing the players to be a little bit more physical on the perimeter and on the inside. The officials would be Ken Mauer, Dan Crawford, and Dick Bavetta. And, finally, a game like this wouldn’t be right without the use of an official David-Stern signed, NBA Spalding ball.  

One of the most amazing sights to see on a basketball court are the pre-game antics of the different players. Some have customary handshakes and dances that they do. Some have a specific routine of stretching and warming up. One thing that stood out while watching these two teams warm up was the gawking and wide-eyed fandom that was apparent on the 2012 team’s side of the court. It is easy to think of athletes as robotic in nature, while forgetting that they were once young fans wanting to be like they hardwood idols. Especially when their idols are on the other side of the court with their deity-like skills on hand for display. But, just as quickly as they were star-struck, they were just as quickly snapped back into reality by Kobe Bryant, and, surprisingly, by Russell Westbrook. The Dream Team squad was all business on their end. 

The referees called out the captains of each team (Johnson and Bird for the Dream Team and Bryant and James for Team USA). The Dream Team was in their classic whites and the 2012 squad in their new look blues. They all shook hands, the referees explained their expectations of the game, and each team went to their sidelines. Game time!!! 

1st Quarter

 Coach Lenny Wilkens trotted out Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley as his starting five. Coach Mike Krzyzewski countered with Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony. And, just like that, 10 of the greatest basketball players were on the court exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands. Chandler and Ewing would be jumping at center court. Bavetta tossed the jump ball, and it is controlled by Ewing. Both teams started off by missing their first shot attempts. On the Dream Team’s 2nd trip down the floor, Kobe snuck into the passing lane and intercepted a pass from Pippen to Jordan leading to a breakaway dunk by Lebron James. The first two points were officially on the board. On their next trip down, Magic Johnson found Ewing on a no-look bounce pass for an and-1 layup. The teams exchanged makes and misses pretty consistently for the first 5 minutes. 

After a timeout, Wilkens substituted Larry Bird and David Robinson for Pippen and Ewing. For Team USA, their first substitutions saw Kevin Durant and Deron Williams coming in for Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. On the first trip down for Team USA after the timeout, Durant made a 3 pointer off an offensive rebound from Chandler. Barkley gave Durant a shoulder check as he turned to go to the other side of the floor. Durant pushed Barkley and both players were given a double technical. On the next possession, Pippen, playing point guard, found Michael Jordan on the baseline for a jumper. 12-11 Dream Team at the half way point of the 1st quarter. After a Deron Williams layup, the Dream Team went on a 10-2 run, with Larry Bird supplying two 3-pointers and Tyson Chandler picking up his 2nd foul during that run. 

After a run-stopping timeout, Coach K trotted out a line of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Deron Williams, and Russell Westbrook. Wilkens brought in Bird, Karl Malone, Robinson, John Stockton, and Clyde Drexler. Anthony and Malone exchanged buckets in the next two possessions. On the next Team USA possession, Westbrook lost possession of the ball, which was stolen by Stockton, who found a streaking Drexler for an easy 2. Another turnover, this time, by Kevin Love, led to a mid-range jumper by Malone. 28-17 Dream Team, with under two minutes left in the quarter. After a missed jumper by Durant, the Dream Team brought the ball up the court looking to add to their double digit lead. Stockton passed it to Bird, who is wide open for a corner 3, but missed it, leading to a transition 3 by Carmelo Anthony. On the next Dream Team possession, Williams poked the ball from Robinson as the shot clock expired, which led to a thunderous (pun intended) dunk by Westbrook on the other end. After a Stockton miss, Williams brought the ball up for the final possession of the quarter. Durant got the ball above the 3-point line, dribbled a little while jabbing towards the basket, and let loose a 28-foot dead on three that splashed through the net as time expires. 28-25 Dream Team, after one quarter. 

2nd Quarter 

The Dream Team came out to begin the 2nd quarter with Stockton, Drexler, Mullin, Bird, andEwing. Team USA squad went with Deron Williams, Kobe, Durant, Lebron, and Love. Team USA took advantage of the Dream Team’s limited defense, and scored on their first four possessions. However, the Dream Team extended their lead at the same time with three from downtown: two from Bird and one from Mullin. 

On the Dream Team’s fourth possession, Lebron nearly steals the ball by knocking it out of Ewing’s hands, but it goes out of bounds instead. In a surprising display,Ewing thumped his chest several times, telling everyone in a loud voice, “I am a WARRIOR!” over and over. Mullin looks stunned for a moment as he wonders what his team would actually be like if Ewing really were a (GoldenState) Warrior. The Dream Team inbounded it toEwing, who immediately shows off his WARRIOR-ness by throwing up a running 18-foot fadeway that clanks off the rim (he was, admittedly, intimidated by the perpetual shut-down defense of Kevin Love). 

Still, the Dream Team led 37-33 as Team USA calls a timeout. 

Out of the timeout, The Dream Team came out with the same lineup. The 2012’ers let Lebron rest a bit and replaced him with Carmelo. Williams drove past Stockton to get an and-1. Stockton, one of the better defenders in NBA history, takes it personally, scowls, and on the next inbounds, rushes up the court and dropped a pull-up 3 right in Deron’s face. Realizing that Carmelo had Bird and Mullin taking turns “guarding” him, the 2012 squad goes to him on the next three trips down the court, with Carmelo hitting a 2 and a 3 (and having a missed 3 tipped in by Love). During that same time frame, the Dream Team goes on a bit of a cold streak from the field, and Team USA takes the lead 41-40, prompting the Dream Team to call a timeout.

One of the most amazing things to witness in a game like this is the interactions in the timeout huddle. While Team USA was all high-fives and laughs, it was all business in the Dream Team huddle. Lenny suggested putting in Laettner, but nobody even blinked. The players all knew they were old enough and wise enough to be coaches themselves. They noticed the 2012 squad trotting out Paul, Williams, Carmelo, Lebron, and Love. In response, Pippen tells Wilkens he’ll guard Carmelo so “they won’t have to worry about him touching the ball again”. Jordan says he and Stockton can take Paul and Williams. One of the funnier moments was when the Dream Teamers decided to put David Robinson in on Love, knowing that the Admiral would completely take advantage of the shorter, less athletic Love. The only person left to guard was Lebron, so they decided that, even though he can’t match LeBron’s total athleticism, the Mailman is the guy who can best match his speed and strength. So in came Malone. 

On the first play, Pippen ran Carmelo through a beautiful “elbows-out-I’m-going-to-send-you-to-the-floor-weeping” screen set by Stockton. Anthony gets up a little wobbly and goes back to the bench, replaced by Durant. Pippen smiles. 

At this point in the game, the Dream Team asserted themselves offensively and defensively. They continuously went inside to the Admiral, who routinely dunked it, probably wondering whether it was Kevin Love or a fruit fly he felt along the way. On the defensive side of the court, Chris Paul could barely make it past midcourt with Jordan hounding him. Paul passed to Deron Williams, who was being bumped and maimed by Stockton. Williams probably began to wonder why his team only had four guys on the court since he could not find Durant under that Pippen defensive blanket.   

On Team USA’s next possession, Williams found Love with a nifty pass. Unfortunately David Robinson shoved the layup down Love’s throat. It seemed for a moment, while Love looked at Robinson in awe, that he was wondering if he was looking at a Greek God incarnate, or just the most ripped athletic specimen to ever walk the earth. Fortunately, Lebron wasn’t as impressed with Robinson’s physique, as he picked up the loose ball and put in the score. 

The Dream Team continued to put on an offensive clinic in the next few possessions, going inside to David Robinson and running the 2012 defenders through a series of cuts and screens that sends everybody on Team USA into at least one Stockton screen. Chris Paul and Deron Williams, taking the brunt of the physicality, start to vehemently complain about the screens. As a writer, it’s crazy when the crowd noise is taken out of the equation and you can hear almost every conversation on the court. In response to the complaining about the screens, Dick Bavetta told the two 2012 guards, “Hey, if you want to try to knock down guys 50 to 100 pounds heavier than you 10 to 12 times every game, I’ll let you do it too.” Paul and Williams suddenly realized they were nowhere as tough as the guy with the short shorts.   

On the other end of the floor, Paul and Williams were getting picked apart by Jordan’s defense and Durant was made to seem like he didn’t even exist on the floor anymore. Love kept looking to the bench, wondering why Coach K hadn’t noticed that David Robinson has 5 more inches and 8 times the athleticism on him. Lebron, realizing that he is only player that can do anything at this moment, begins to try to take over the game. He got past Malone on a couple of occasions, but the veteran power forward either stripped Lebron or knocked him off balance on his jumpers. 

In all, it was a 16-6 run by the Dream Teamers that put them up 56-47 with two minutes to go in the half. 

Time out for Team USA.   

The 2012 team put in their small ball line-up for the final two minutes of the half: Chris Paul, Deron Williams,Kobe, Durant, and Lebron. The Dream Teamers decided to show the young guys that they can also go fast AND big at the same time. They trotted out Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, and the Admiral.

 After the timeout, the 2012 squad looked to take advantage of their small ball lineup, especially at point guard with Magic being in the game. Heading into the game, one of the main headlines was the Kobe vs. Michael matchup. How would the player most compared to Jordan fare against him? In a couple words, not very well (in the first half, at least). Kobe tried to challenge Jordan in the final two minutes, but instead ended up costing his team.Kobe went 0-2 with two turnovers during that time-span.

 Those turnovers and missed jumpers allowed the Dream Team to basically turn every defensive possession into a fast break opportunity. Magic was at his “Showtime” best, setting up Jordan, Pippen, and Robinson for dunks. On the final possession of the half for Team USA, Pippen deflected a Deron Williams pass that ended up in the hands of Charles Barkley who had a full head of steam with 5 seconds left. The only person back for the 2012 squad was Lebron, but even he realized that he’d rather fight another day than try to challenge Barkley with a full head of steam. Two-handed slam, buzzer, and that was the 1st half. 66-51 Dream Team.  

 3rd Quarter

 Coming out of halftime, the 2012 squad looked to get back in the groove, down by 15. Coach K decided at halftime to throw caution to the wind and go with a more assertive lineup to combat these NBA greats. He turned the reigns of point guard over to Lebron, with Kobe alongside in the backcourt, Durant and Carmelo on the wings, and Chandler in the post. The Dream Team decided to start the 2nd half with Stockton, Jordan, Pippen, Malone, and Ewing in the paint.

 Again, one of the great things about eliminating the crowd noise is that you can hear the different conversations going on between the players and coaches. At the scorer’s table, Jordan walked up to Kobe and tells him, “You may be able to sit at many players’ tables, but you still can’t sit at my table, rook.” Kobe, in turn, responded, “We’ll see about that. I still got a couple years left”, while he powdered his hands. On the sideline, Ewing, looking as refreshed as someone with a jersey soaked in sweat could look, barked at Chandler, saying “this my paint, you ready to bang?” Chandler responded with a smirk as Dick Bavetta handed him the ball. Chandler passed it toKobe and the second half began. 

With Lebron controlling the ball at point, Team USA jumped out on a 6-0 run. On their first two possessions, on what looked like to be the same play, Lebron found a wide open Anthony who connected on back to back 3’s. Kack kaack!! “String music” yelled Carmelo. Jordan, disgusted by Pippen’s defensive effort, screams at his Bulls teammate, “get your man, Scottie!!!” Immediate timeout called by Coach Wilkens in an attempt to get the Dream Team’s focus back. The run, got the 2012 squad within single digits early in the 3rd quarter. 

After the timeout, the Dream Team makes the necessary defensive adjustments. The two teams continue to battle back and forth throughout the quarter. Jordan would score, then Lebron would respond. The two teams began to trade baskets in an offensive display like none other. The 2012 squad continued to hang close, only down by 9 points. On the next possession, Kobe swiped the ball from Stockton with a chance to cut the lead to 7, but inexplicably dribbled the ball off his knee. From that point on, the Dream Team turned up their defensive intensity, which seemed to stifle Team USA’s offensive production in the middle of the 3rd. Jordan was all on top of Kobe, giving him a real headache. When Kobe drove left, Jordan was there. When Kobe drove right, Jordan was there. It was his Airness at his defensive best. Malone and Ewing were being savages in the paint, giving Chandler and Carmelo more than they could handle. But no one was stopping Durant, who kept the 2012 team treading water with a couple jumpers. The 2012 team remained down by 9, midway through the 3rd quarter, heading to an officials’ timeout. 

The two teams made line up changes and exchanged baskets and misses for the next 3 minutes. With only a minute and a half left in the 3rd, the lead for the Dream Team was still 9, at 82-73. Lebron knew if something was going to happen, it had to happen now. One of the things that he learned in his championship season was to pick and choose when to take over, especially on a team full of superstars. It was go time. He knew it. Coach K knew it. Everyone on that 2012 bench knew it. After exchanging misses, Lebron drove to the basket using his strength to get an and-1 lay-up after a hard foul by Malone. After sinking the free-throw, Lebron blocked a last second shot attempt by Jordan to end the quarter. As the clock expired, both team walked to their respective sides knowing that the 4th would be a pure dogfight. With three quarters in the books, the Dream Team led 90-84.

 4th Quarter 

At the beginning of the 4th stanza, both teams decided to rest their main guys knowing that in order to win this dog fight, sustaining energy for the long haul was absolutely paramount.  The Dream Team entered the quarter with Stockton, Mullin, Drexler, Malone, and Robinson, while Team USA countered with Williams, Westbrook, Iguodala, Carmelo, and Love.  Team USA wasted their first two possessions on ill-advised 3-pointers by Russell Westbrook, while the Dream Team played much more efficient basketball, getting two easy buckets inside from Karl Malone. With that, the Dream Team took back control of the game, pushing their lead to 10, 94-84, a minute and a half into the fourth quarter. 

On their next possession, Iguodala lets a tipped pass get by his finger tips out of bounds, leading to a turnover. On their way back to the other side of the court, Barkley gets up off the bench and starts barking at Carmelo, “You can’t hold the Mailman!” Carmelo looked back, replying, “Don’t talk too soon Chuck, still a long way to go.” Not even a minute later, Williams was able to strip the ball from Drexler while he was driving to the basket, leading to a 3 on 1 fast break which Williams converted to a layup to cut the lead down to 8. With that, Coach K got off the Team USA bench with two clinched fists in the air, signaling for a full court press. Realizing that Stockton was the only legitimate ball handler on the court for the Dream Teamers, Coach K put Westbrook, and his ravenous ball pressure skills on Stockton, while the other four Team USA defenders went into heavy man to man denial mode. Westbrook’s defensive pressure works as Stockton picked up his dribble near midcourt. Chris Mullin comes to the half court as a pressure release as Stockton passes the ball, but Iguodala is a half second quicker in the passing lane, leading to a fast break opportunity for TeamUSA. Iguodala got the ball to Westbrook, who penetrated to the basket only to have his shot rejected by David Robinson, who came from the other side of the court. Kevin Love (as always) was in the right position to corral the loose ball, drop step, and finish a layup to bring Team USA within 6 points, 94-88. 

With 8 minutes and some change left in this heavyweight matchup, Dream Team coach Lenny Wilkens inserts Scottie Pippen in place of Mullin, while Coach K completes the chess match by substituting Durant and Paul for Iguodala and Williams. Before play begins, Krzyzewski calls Love over and whispers a brief 2-3 second order into his ear, to which Love gives a nod of agreement. After the teams exchange misses, the Dream Team was looking to utilize their advantage in the post. Stockton brings the ball up and passes it to Drexler on the wing. Drexler takes one dribble to the right, but passes it to Pippen who is coming off a Malone screen. Pippen zips a pass into the post to Robinson who has positioned himself for a quick shot. The Admiral goes up for a 3-foot hook shot, but is immediately fouled by Love. Coach K’s message to Love was to foul Robinson on his next shot attempt and make him earn those points due to the fact that Robinson was a 59% FT shooter in the ‘92 Olympics. The plan works as Robinson misses both free throws. Carmelo grabs the rebounds, dribbles up past the half court line as Coach K calls timeout with Team USA down 6. The coach knows that the next few minutes could be very important and wants to discuss strategy with the team.

 And so it begins……. 

6:43 left and both teams bring back their heavy hitters. The Dream Team 5 consists of Magic, Jordan, Barkley, Malone, and Ewing, while Team USA counters with Lebron, Kobe, Durant, Carmelo, and Chandler.

 As expected, Jordan comes out of the timeout hitting a 2 pointer off a flare screen by Barkley, which, in the NBA, would’ve been illegal, but since the refs are allowing a more physical game, it was allowed to happen. On Team USA’s next possession, Lebron, using Kobe as a decoy, was able to complete a give and go in which Lebron backdoors Magic for the 3 point play, giving Team USA a chance to cut the lead to 5.  Lebron completes the 3-point play with the free throw and cuts the lead to 96-91 with 5:44 to go in the 4th quarter.

 After a failed possession by each team, and a costly turnover by Chandler in the post, the Dream Team has the ball with 3:37 to go. Kobe gets a ticky tack foul called on him, as he slightly bumps Barkley while attempting a double team. Barkley looks at Kobe and yells, “I know you’re not double-teaming me with the guy that is guarding Michael!” Barkley gets the ball out of bounds and gets it to Jordan, who raises up for a 17 ft jumper that bounces off the back of the rim. Durant grabs the rebound and quickly gets the ball out to Kobe. Kobe gets the ball up the court and quickly passes to Lebron who finds Durant trailing on the play for a wide open 3….good!  Team USAonly down two, 96-94, much to the dismay of Coach Wilkens. 

 With 2 minutes to play, Coach Wilkens makes what is perhaps the coaching move of the game. He substitutes Pippen for Barkley, whose defensive lapses on the perimeter had cost the Dream Team most their lead. That move pays dividends as the defensive pressure from Jordan and Pippen limits Kobe to 1-4 shooting in the final 2 minutes, and keeps the ball out of Lebron’s hands by double teaming him every time he caught the ball in the perimeter. On the offensive end, the veteran leadership of the Dream Team took over. Magic Johnson showed poise in running the point, managing the shot clock, and finding Karl Malone for two back breaking 20 footers as the shot clock was expiring. The perimeter-oriented offense of Team USA proved to be their demise as they could not get anything easy going late in the game. When the final buzzer sounded, it was 100-96, Dream Team.

 Both teams hugged and congratulated each other like it was the end of a hard fought playoff series. All the Dream Teamers were grabbing their younger counterparts and dispelling small nuggets of wisdom. And, of course, the Team USA members were all ears, soaking it all in like sponges. At center court, Michael Jordan hugged Kobe Bryant and talked with him for about a minute. What was said? Only those two know. But I would bet it would have something to do with respect and love for the game, for these two teams exemplify what being a basketball player and being a basketball team is to us fans. In a game that would seem only to occur in the imagination, this was an incredible display of basketball at its finest.