NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder


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.

Report: Jrue Holiday’s wife, Lauren Holiday, undergoes successful brain surgery

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 31:  Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans handles the ball during a game against the Golden State Warriors at the Smoothie King Center on October 31, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday is away from the team as his wife, Lauren Holiday, battles a brain tumor.

First, Lauren gave birth to a healthy daughter.

Now, more good news.

John Reid of The Times-Picayune:

Hopefully, the Holidays continue to find good health.

Sixers coach Brett Brown says he expects Ben Simmons back in January

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A Jones fracture — the broken bone in the foot that Philadelphia rookie Ben Simmons recently has surgery to repair — is difficult to put on a recovery timeline. That part of the foot (the outside of the foot closer to the ankle) does not get good blood flow and that can slow recovery. Plus with a prized rookie, the Sixers have a history of being cautious — and Simmons’ agent may want to be even more cautious.

But Brett Brown, the Sixers coach, said he expects Simmons back on the court in January.

Here is what he told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

On Friday, coach Brett Brown confirmed that the first overall pick is scheduled to return in January. League sources previously said that Simmons would be out for three months.

“It’s not doom and gloom,” Brown said when asked when asked how his team is adjusting to its various injuries at the moment. “Ben is coming back in January. We are still trying to find information on Jerryd [Bayless]. Jahlil [Okafor] is still trying to touch the court in his first preseason game.”

It’s certainly possible Simmons is back in January, but even if it takes a little longer than that — say closer to the All-Star break — Brown would certainly take that. As Brown told us when he joined PBT for a podcast, he wants to spend a lot of this season seeing how his young, athletic front line can play together? Can Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, and Dario Saric all play together in a big front line? How do Simmons and Embiid mesh? Simmons and Saric? Where does Nerlens Noel fit in all this once he returns?

Until Brown gets guys healthy and on the court it’s impossible to know.

For all our sakes, I hope Simmons is back in January. And if he is, the possibility of him still winning Rookie of the Year exists.

Report: Cavaliers trying to trade Mo Williams rather than waive and pay him

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 05:  Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the ball against Ian Clark #21 of the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter in Game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 5, 2016 in Oakland, 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.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Mo Williams slyly backed the Cavaliers into a corner by opting into the final year of his contract, not retiring and undergoing surgery.

Look past the noise, and it’s pretty simple. Williams is under contract for a guaranteed $2,194,500 this season, and because he’s recovering from surgery, it’d be difficult for Cleveland to suspend him for not reporting. Just what does reporting look like for someone recovering from surgery?

This is obviously a fiasco for the Cavs, who face a steep luxury-tax bill and roster crunch. They don’t want Williams worsening either dilemma.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in impasse with guard Mo Williams and it has left them scouring the league for a trade partner so they don’t have to swallow millions, sources told

The Cavs, who were caught off guard by the decision, have not had meaningful discussions with Williams on a buyout agreement, sources said.

Needing both a roster spot and a backup point guard, the Cavs are in a squeeze as the regular season opener looms. They are looking to attach guard Jordan McRae to Williams in trades, sources said.

Williams has negative trade value. I doubt McRae carries much trade value, let alone enough to offset the anchor of Williams.

It’s too late for Cleveland to stretch Williams’ salary. He has little incentive to negotiate a buyout. At this point, he’ll probably get all his remaining salary (though a buyout would be guaranteed and avoid the possibility of fines and suspensions reducing his payout).

The Cavaliers would do well to trade Williams to another team to waive him. The Cavs project to save $6,328,892 ($2,194,500 and $4,134,392 in luxury tax) by dumping Williams rather than waiving him themselves. They could even send another team Williams’ full $2,194,500 salary to take him and still come far ahead financially. Essentially, the other team would break even in such a deal. So, why would the other team do it? Cleveland would also have to send more – additional cash, draft picks or a player like McRae.

With multiple teams below the salary floor, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a taker.

But whatever positive assets the Cavaliers trade to dump Williams would be assets they can’t use in a trade for a healthy, productive point guard.

Williams is going to make life more difficult for the Cavs. The only question now is just how much more.

Knicks waive Lou Amundson, four others to keep Ron Baker

New York Knicks guard Ron Baker (31) goes to the basket against Boston Celtics forward Amir Johnson (90) and guard Avery Bradley (0) during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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Ron Baker was one of the top undrafted players, and the Knicks scooped him up quickly.

They probably didn’t realize just how much they’d need him.

New York’s rotation point guards are Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings, who both carry unsettling injury histories. Additionally, Rose missed most of the preseason while successfully defending himself in a rape lawsuit.

The Knicks can’t afford to go without a third point guard, and Chasson Randle‘s injury left Baker.

But because the they have 15 players with guaranteed salaries – Baker isn’t one – the Knicks had to waive Lou Amundson, who just signed a guaranteed deal. New York also waived Randle, J.P. Tokoto, Damien Inglis and Cleanthony Early, none of whom had fully guaranteed salaries.

Other candidates with guaranteed salaries who could’ve been waived: Sasha Vujacic, Marshall Plumlee and Maurice Ndour.

The bigger mystery than why the Knicks chose Amundson to waive is why they gave him a fully guaranteed contract in the first place.