NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Thunder_crowd.jpgLast season: 50-32, which tied them three ways for the sixth seed, but due to tiebreakers they got the eighth spot — and the Lakers in the first round. The athleticism of the Thunder pushed it six games, but you have to learn to win in the NBA and the Thunder are still learning.

Head Coach: Scott Brooks, who has formed a real connection with his young team.

Key Departures: None (because as much as you consider Etan Thomas “key” I do not)

Key Additions:
They locked up Kevin Durant for five years at the max. Put the meaningless comparisons to LeBron’s summer aside and realize that this was one of the biggest moves of the entire summer. Maybe the biggest.

Also, brought in were Daequan Cook, Mo Peterson and draft pick Cole Aldrich. So basically not a lot in terms if key minutes. Maybe the best pickup was a swap to get a future Clipper first rounder (if it’s lottery protected they should see it around 2020).

Best case scenario: They take the next step forward, get home court in the first round (at least) and win a series or two in the playoffs. A Western Conference finals series against the Lakers is the ultimate dream.

For that to happen: Kevin Durant has to continue to be THE Kevin Durant, they have to play better team defense, they have to continue to see growth and improvement out of their young core, and they have to stay healthy.

Yes, you can say “they have to stay healthy” about all 30 teams, but what went largely unnoticed last year was the Thunder were one of the healthiest teams in the league. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha all played 82 games. James Harden and Nenad Krstic missed just six games each. Nick Collison missed seven, Serge Ibaka nine. Basically, none of the Thunder core had a serious injury last season. That is rare in the NBA (just ask the other young power in the West up in Portland).

As for Durant, if you watched him in the FIBA World Championships this summer you have no doubt he will be THE Kevin Durant again. That may have less to do with scoring more or being a much better player — he is already getting mentioned in the Kobe/LeBron sentences — than it is about public perception. Durant is exploding on the scene, moving from the guy all the basketball fans rave about to a guy the average fan tunes in to watch.

I’ve written this story before but I’ll do it one more time for our many new readers: At a late-season Clippers/Thunder matchup last season I was seated next to a couple of advanced scouts, both whose teams had upcoming games against the Thunder. Three times during that game Durant did something that left these two guys — whose job it is to watch and break down games for a living — looking at each other and just shaking their head. At one point one said, “How the (expletive) are we supposed to stop that?” If you can do that to the most jaded, you are special.

What really matters for the Thunder is continued improvement and defense.

The Thunder were ninth in defensive efficiency in the league last season, not bad but something they can improve on. That starts with Ibaka — he has become the team’s go-to shot blocker and they need someone to protect the rim (every team needs that in today’s NBA). Cole Aldrich may also help in that role, but he is more of a project than a guy playing huge, key minutes this season. Ibaka comes off the bench and may not supplant Krstic as the starter, but look for him to close out more games when the Thunder need defensive stops.

Also, as the season wore on the Thunder’s defense seemed to improve, they seemed to better use their athleticism to disrupt, create turnovers then turn that into easy (sometimes spectacular) points going the other direction.

The other big question is: Can Westbrook and Green and Ibaka and James Harden and the rest of the core all continue to take steps forward. Last season all showed dramatic improvement in their games, fueling the Thunder. If you project them on that same arc, they become a force

Westbrook has become elite in dishing out assists, but can he cut his turnover rate (16.6) down this season. More importantly, can he become more of a scoring threat. Yes, that is an odd thing to say about a guy who put up 16.1 points per game, but he was not efficient where it matters — he shot just 22 percent on threes and finished just 52.7 percent of his shots at the rim (that’s layups, dunks and the like). Those are both very low numbers. Westbrook can get in the lane seemingly at will, but he has to finish better in there to take the next step forward. His quickness also affords him open threes, he has to hit more.

You can say the same kinds of things up and down the Thunder roster. Everyone has things they need to improve on if this team is to continue its assent.

More likely the Thunder will: Be close to last year’s Thunder. Understand that not taking a step back — not having a big sophomore slump — really would be s sign of improvement. But to expect everyone to stay healthy all season and for all the players to keep improving at an exponential rate may be asking too much. Some will improve, some will stay flat, and GM Sam Presti will have a better idea what tweaks need to be made.

What really matters more than anything is that the professionalism and intensity that characterized the young Thunder locker room remains. That is what ultimately will take them where they want to go.

Prediction: 50 wins, which if it gets them anyone but the Lakers in the first round will lead to a first round upset and a trip deeper into the playoffs. You have to learn how to win at the NBA level and the Thunder are learning that. It may be another year or two before those lessons really bear fruit, but they are being learned. Durant is taking them to heart, you can be sure.

Lakers’ GM Kupchak got “a chuckle” at idea team would trade top three pick

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak speaks to reporters at team headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., Friday, April 15, 2016. With Kobe Bryant's $25 million salary, ravenous shot selection and dominant personality gone from the basketball team after 20 years, Kupchak says he will meet with head coach Byron Scott and owner Jim Buss in a few days to discuss their options for the Lakers, which finished with the NBA's second-worst record at 17-65 in Bryant's farewell season. (AP Photo/Greg Beacham)
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The Lakers are going to be aggressive this off-season. Jim Buss, the guy with the final say on basketball operations, gave himself a deadline to get the Lakers “back into contention” (which is vaguely defined, but we can say at least the second round of the playoffs) and things need to happen sooner rather than later.

Would he be so aggressive as to trade a top 3 pick? That’s the rumor.

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak did a media tour Friday and said on the Thompson and Trudell show on ESPN710 in Los Angeles not to bet on that. Via Serena Winters of Lakersnation.com.

The Lakers had the second-worst record in the NBA and with that have a 56 percent chance of having one of the top picks three picks in the draft after the NBA Draft Lottery May 17. If they fall to four or farther, the pick goes to the Sixers as the last remnants of the Steve Nash trade.

Would the Lakers move that pick? Depends on what the offer they get back is.

Would they love to trade that pick and someone like Julius Randle to land Paul George? Well, I would like to drive my Maserati over to pick up Scarlett Johansson for our night out. About the same odds of happening.

But the Lakers should explore the trade market. That’s just smart business. What they can’t do is get so wrapped up in the idea of getting good fast that they make bad decisions that haunt them down the line. Don’t overspend on players not ready to step up in their role, don’t trade assets for B-list guys that are a step sidewise but older and more expensive. Don’t sacrifice the foundation for a few short term wins. That said, the Lakers’ MO has never been the slow, patient build.

Kupchak also spoke about the need for an experienced assistant next to new coach Luke Walton (one with a defensive pedigree) and the Lakers’ plans to do better in free agency this time around. Via Bill Oram of the Orange County Register.

Byron Scott: D’Angelo Russell acted ‘entitled’

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 1:  Head coach Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers and D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 1, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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D'Angelo Russell‘s leaked video of Nick Young redeemed Byron Scott.

Of all the silly things Scott said – and continues to say – labeling Russell immature turned out somewhat valid.

But in taking a victory lap on that assessment, the former Lakers coach exposed a huge problem with his player-development and communication skills.

Scott, via The Dan Patrick Show:

Some of these guys, when they come into the league, they think they’re entitled. And I thought that’s how he felt when he first got with us. He almost tried to act like he was a veteran, and I tried to make sure that he knew that he wasn’t a veteran. You have to earn your stripes. So, yeah, there were times where I was a little tough on him just to bring him back down to earth, to let him know that this is not an easy task when you’re in the NBA. That’s the easy part is getting there. The hardest part is staying there, getting better and better and better. So, yeah, I had some tough love for the young man. But just like I told him, “When I stop talking to you, that’s going to be a problem.”

Like the time Scott didn’t talk to Russell about losing his starting job? Or the time Scott didn’t talk to Russell about putting him back into the starting lineup? Or the time Scott didn’t talk to Russell about the Young video?

Report: Lakers want to trade first-round pick, more for Paul George

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The Lakers just don’t want to trade the No. 1 pick if they get it.

They reportedly have a specific target in mind: Paul George.

Bill Simmons of The Ringer:

First, the Lakers would have to get a top-three pick. They keep their first-rounder only if it lands in the top three, and there’s just a 56% chance of that. It’d also help to get the No. 1 pick, where the Pacers could choose between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. There’s a big drop to the prospects available at No. 3, so which pick the Lakers get matters a great deal.

The Lakers might also have to add a valuable young player like D'Angelo Russell or Julius Randle.

And then they’d have to convince Indiana to accept the deal.

While announcing Frank Vogel’s ouster, Pacers president Larry Bird said:

Somebody asked me the question, ‘Do you expect to be in the playoffs?’ And I thought he was kidding. I expect to be in the playoffs and make it through a few rounds and then see how good our players really are. Because the first round is always nice, but you don’t start really getting into the playoffs and know what the playoffs are about until you get to the Eastern Conference finals and the Finals. That’s when the basketball really starts.

Does that sound like someone who’d trade his star veteran for a rookie?

With a top-two pick, the Lakers might have assets commensurate with George’s value, but they’re all assets that will bloom a few years from now. If the Pacers aren’t interested in that timeline, none of this matters.

The Lakers’ plan makes sense – even beyond Jim Buss needing a quick turnaround to keep his job. The Lakers cap space would become much more valuable with a veteran star like George, who’d sway free agents. A patient rebuild makes less sense in Los Angeles than other places.

Getting a star is hard, but the Lakers should try. Succeeding could quickly lead to a second and maybe even third star joining.

They just have to be careful not to dump a valuable draft pick for someone with star status but not star production. George is a true star, but if they can’t get him, who’s Plan B and C and…? At a certain point, it makes sense just to draft someone and build slowly around a young core.

Will Kevin Durant leave Thunder? Other teams reportedly believe decision hinges on Spurs series

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) walks up court during the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series as San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) looks on, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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There’s plenty at stake in this Spurs-Thunder series already.

The winner advances to the Western Conference finals – an accomplishment in itself – likely to face the Warriors, who still haven’t gotten Stephen Curry back.

But this second round matchup could also prove instrumental in whether Durant stays in Oklahoma City or bolts – maybe to San Antonio.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

As well as Durant and his close-knit tandem of representatives, Rich Kleiman and Charlie Bell, have done in terms of keeping their intentions mysterious, there is a working assumption among KD’s would-be suitors that a second-round Thunder exit essentially cinches the notion that he’ll indeed walk away and look for the best external situation that positions him to win that elusive first championship.

The theory (stress: theory) also holds that OKC success in this round against the 67-win Spurs would be enough, no matter what happens in a presumed Western Conference finals showdown with the Warriors, to convince Durant, at the very least, to sign a new two-year deal with Oklahoma City ‎that contains a player option for Year 2.

Durant has already denied a report he’ll leave the Thunder if they don’t reach the NBA Finals. It’s never that cut and dry for a free agent.

But the Thunder’s success is works in their favor, and seeing that come undone right in front of his eyes could push Durant out of Oklahoma City. Likewise, seeing the Thunder win could convince Durant of his current team’s potential.

I don’t know whether Durant will re-sign if the Thunder advance and leave if they don’t. But if I’m Oklahoma City or San Antonio, I’d sure want to win to tip the odds toward my favor.