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.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.