Thunder winning games, just not expectation game

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-4, which means they are on pace for about 49 wins this season. Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring. If the playoff started today after an absurdly short regular season, they would be the seven seed in the West.

That coming after a season where they won 50 games, Kevin Durant led the league in scoring and they were the eighth seed in the West. That was followed by a summer where the Thunder decided to stand pat and not make any big free agent moves, not to make any dramatic roster changes.

So why does it feel like the Thunder are a disappointment?

Because of you and me, because of our expectations. Our unreasonable expectations (we warned you this would happen). All of us saw how dynamic they were in pushing the Lakers in the first round last season. We saw Durant dominate the world this summer, with Russell Westbrook by his side. All that led to this feeling that they would take another gigantic leap forward.

That almost never happens. If you bring back the same team you had last season, then you are what you were last season. Really, after a breakout year just remaining the same in the face of a “sophomore slump” is a step forward. Not the leap people wanted, but a step.

What is frustrating is you can see where these Thunder really could be better. Where they really could take that leap, mostly because this year feels like a regression on the court.

However, that really isn’t measured until the playoffs. Last season the Thunder started out 7-7 but figured it out by the end of the season. That could happen again if a few things come together.

On offense, the Thunder are still good, but it is coming with Durant and Westbrook more in isolation. Durant is averaging 28.4 points per game, Westbrook 23.5, but some of the movement — both ball and player — have been gone.

What is keeping the offense going is free throws — they are getting to the line more (per field goal attempt) than any team in the league. Then once there they are hitting a ridiculous 88.1 percent of their free throws as a team — the 89-90 Boston Celtics hold the current record at 83.2 percent. OKC is five points ahead of that. What all those free throws mean is the Thunder are still attacking.

What they are not doing well is defending. Last season they gave up 104.6 points per 100 possessions, this season that has jumped to 112.5, 29th in the league. They are allowing teams to shoot a higher percentage, they are creating fewer turnovers (which really hurts them because the Thunder are so dynamic and get such easy baskets in transition).

The biggest problem is in the middle — opposing teams are getting five more shots a game right at the rim than they did last year. In today’s NBA you need someone to protect the paint, and maybe this year’s draft pick Cole Aldrich can be that guy someday, but he is not right now.

The Thunder could help their cause by starting Serge Ibaka. They did with Jeff Green out against the Jazz last game, Ibaka had four blocks and the Thunder beat a hot Jazz team. When Green returns he needs to play, but it may be time to bring Nenad Krstic off the bench. You don’t lose any offense (he had 22 points against the Jazz) and what he brings on defense is needed.

It’s a step in getting this team back to the potential we all expected of them, what we hoped of them. But maybe we should reign in those expectations, too. This week they play Boston then Milwaukee on the back-to-back. Things are not getting easier for these Thunder as they try to improve. And improvement might look a lot like standing still sometimes.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan staying in 2017 NBA draft

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan declared for the 2016 NBA draft, struggled at the combine, withdrew, got into great shape, had an All-American sophomore season, declared for the 2017 draft.

This time, he’s not turning back.

Swanigan:

Swanigan is a borderline first-round pick. He has a couple NBA-ready skills the good teams that typically pick late in the first round might covet, but thanks to trades, teams that didn’t win a playoff game this year hold most late first-round picks. They might pick someone with more upside than Swanigan.

Swanigan is a tenacious rebounder, particularly defensively. He has excellent fundamentals, size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) and ability to read the ball, and he crashes through contact to hunt boards.

He’s also a quality post-up player who can finish with either hand and has the passing ability to make that play work.

But Swanigan is slow. NBA teams have become increasingly adept at running plodders like him off the court by dragging them into pick-and-rolls. Even when on the court, he hasn’t protected the rim at satisfactory levels.

Swanigan has overcome his athletic limitations as a rebounder. He hasn’t done so in other facets of defense.

He’s hardly a dinosaur offensively. He made 45% of his 3-pointers last season, and though I’m not confident that will translate to NBA 3-point range (give the small sample and his form), he should be at least a midrange threat.

Swanigan is also just 20, young for a sophomore. He can improve.

But it’s just hard to look past his defensive limitations.

Hawks hire Travis Schlenk as general manager

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The Hawks picked Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk as their next general manager. All that was left was negotiating terms.

That’s done.

Hawks:

The Atlanta Hawks today announced the hiring of Travis Schlenk as General Manager and Head of Basketball Operations. He will start leading Hawks basketball operations on June 1.

Schlenk worked his way up the latter and helped the Warriors become the envy of every other NBA team. He deserves this opportunity.

But the job won’t be easy.

The Hawks are stuck between two directions. On one side, they have veterans Paul Millsap (a 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent whom the owner has basically promised a huge contract) and Dwight Howard (who sounds unhappy). On the other side, they have a youth movement featuring Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince. Tim Hardaway Jr., who bridges the age groups, is about to enter a potentially tricky restricted free agency.

Keeping the core together offers the upside of a playoff-series victory or two annually, modest outcomes for the cost. But a fragile Atlanta fan base might not tolerate a rebuild.

Schlenk works for owner Tony Ressler, and Ressler sounds committed to maintaining the status quo by keeping Millsap. It’s now Schlenk’s job to execute that vision or convince his boss to approve a different direction.

Potential none-and-done first-rounder Hamidou Diallo returning to Kentucky

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The more I’ve looked into the 2017 NBA draft, the less impressed I’ve become. There are a few bright spots in the first round relative to an average draft – No. 2, 5ish-10ish, 17ish-22ish – but I’m not convinced this is the generationally strong draft it has been touted as.

In the absence of prospects who offer secure promise, why not turn to upside? Hamidou Diallo offered plenty and was increasingly viewed as a first-rounder.

Yet, he’ll return to Kentucky for his freshman season.

Diallo:

A highly ranked recruit, Diallo began last school year at a prep school then enrolled at Kentucky for the spring semester. He practiced with the Wildcats, but never played.

Then, he went to the combine and posted excellent measurables: 6-foot-5, 6-foot-11 wingspan, 44.5-inch vertical and strong agility and sprint scores. Just 18, Diallo might have been the second-youngest player drafted this year (behind only Ike Anigbogu).

It wouldn’t have taken long – likely somewhere in the middle of the first round – for a team to bite on all that potential.

Instead, Diallo returns to Kentucky and must now show his ability to actually produce in basketball games. If he does, there’s no limit on how high he goes in the 2018 NBA draft. If he doesn’t, he’ll regret missing the opportunity to get drafted before his game got picked apart.

Report: Bulls expect Dwyane Wade to opt in

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Dwyane Wade said he wants to see the Bulls’ plan for Jimmy Butler and the rest of the roster before deciding on a $23.8 million player option for next season.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

I can tell you is most everyone associated with the Bulls believes Wade will pick up the option and remain in Chicago for a second season. More surprising things have happened in league history, though. So stay tuned.

This could be a tell that Wade will opt in. The Bulls could obviously be positioned to base their prediction on inside information into Wade’s thinking.

This could a tell the Bulls won’t trade Butler. If they know they’ll keep Butler, they can extrapolate what that’d mean for Wade.

Or the Bulls, like so many of us, just assume a 35-year-old Wade won’t turn down so much guaranteed money at this stage of his career.