What the Thunder should do when the lockout ends

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Oklahoma City is out latest stop on our “what your team needs to do when the lockout ends” tour. To see the teams already covered (we’re working our way through the Western Conference right now) click here.

Last season in Oklahoma City: We saw growth. The young Thunder team took the steps forward we all expected (there were some fools who expected a massive leap to the title, but teams grow more slowly than that). They won 55 games, up from 50. They reached the Western Conference finals for the first time (after being knocked out in the first round the year before). They traded for Kendrick Perkins, which was a great move (Dallas was just a bad matchup). OKC made strides, the season was what it should have been.

Since we last saw the Thunder: They made a sweet move in the draft, promising early to Reggie Jackson, the point guard out of Boston College. A lot of teams loved him as a sleeper, but with the early promise he stopped working out for teams and fell all the way to the Thunder at No. 24. That may mean Eric Maynor is on his way out.

Aside that, the roster remains stable.

When the lockout ends, the Thunder need to… Lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal, then pray for more growth from a young team, growth that could have them taking the next step or two. Well, there are a couple more things, but those are the big ones.

When the lockout ends GM Sam Presti should show up on the doorstep of Russell Westbrook and offer him whatever the new max extension to his rookie deal will be — they have to keep this guy. He is part of the core, of the future in OKC. He is one of the best young point guards in the game – he can play at both ends of the floor, gives you 21.9 points per game and 8.2 assists (with a better than 2-1 turnover ratio). And he will be just 23 next season — his game is still maturing.

Westbrook took a lot of heat during the playoffs for taking shots away from and not playing well with Durant. There was a little truth to that, although we saw flashes of brilliance, too (like Game 7 against Memphis). There were ludicrous calls to trade him because he didn’t defer enough to the league’s leading scorer. Royce Young of the brilliant Daily Thunder blog has words for you if you think Westbrook and Durant need to start playing well together.

They already do.  They didn’t win 55 games and come within two fourth quarters of the NBA Finals by playing bad together. Do they need to improve? Definitely. Good thing they’re both just 22 years old.

There’s not a lot else for the Thunder to do, their roster is pretty set. Mr. pro-am. er, Kevin Durant got his extension last summer. Perkins got an extension (and they will need him going forward, they need him in the middle to rebound and protect the rim with Serge Ibaka). They made a qualifying offer and still need to figure out things with Daequan Cook, but the roster is pretty much set.

Still there are things that need to be done to take the next step, and the Daily Thunder’s Young has ideas.

1) Scott Brooks needs to figure out if James Harden is going to start or not. The Thunder drafted Reggie Jackson to potentially fill Harden’s scoring punch role off the bench and it’s pretty much universally agreed upon that Harden should start over Thabo Sefolosha. But Brooks is stubborn and likes to stick with what works, so it’ll be a decision.

And 2), Get Perk healthy. Perkins himself said he was only about 60 percent during the playoffs. He was overweight, out of shape and his knees were a little heavy on him. He’s committed to a pretty tough offseason conditioning plan — one that may or may not include getting in bar fights — and he’s said he wants to get back down to a playing weight of around 250. This is the Perk that Oklahoma City is hoping for. Not the one that lumbered around in the postseason like he was Greg Oden’s overweight brother.

Bottom line is that the Thunder don’t need to do much when the lockout ends — they will come in as more experienced title contenders next season. If the lockout drags on and the 2012 season looks like the 1999 season — 50 games crammed into too few days and then the playoffs — young and talented teams where their leg will bounce back quickly have a big advantage. And that would be the Thunder.

Their time is coming soon, fans just need to be a little more patient.

LaVar Ball rebuffs LeBron James’ warning: ‘They’re not going to stop me from doing what I’m doing’

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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LaVar Ball, father of highly touted UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, continued his media tour by discussing the difficulties LeBron James‘ sons will face due to the high expectations implicit with their dad.

LeBron didn’t like that one bit, saying: “Keep my kids’ name out of your mouth. Keep my family out of your mouth.”

LaVar Ball on Fox Sports Radio:

I don’t have a problem with LeBron.

It’s just how people, they asked me a question about, do I think superstar players’ kids are good? And just my opinion that I’ve never seen one that was really good. LeBron is going to make his kids probably one of the best players ever, according to him. Now, there’s going to be some outside opinions. I’ve just never seen superstars that have kids, because they have to live up to that – they don’t have to live up to it – but I’ve never seen none really live up to what their dad has done.

So, he could be the first or not or the last. So, like I said, it’s not about me having his kids’ mouth. I’m not worried about his family. I’m not worried about his kids. If somebody asks me a question I’ll answer it the way I feel like answering it. But I have nothing against LeBron or his kids.

So, they can go ahead and make them the best or make them the worst. It ain’t got nothing to do with me.

People just asking me questions. I’ve been talking all my life. It’s just now the cameras and the things are in front of me. So, I’m just saying, if people ask me something, I’m going to give you an answer, because I can have freedom of speech to say whatever I want. And it’s either going to be good or bad, and it’s just for conversation for the next day.

I don’t have nobody telling me nothing. I don’t have nobody telling me nothing. It’s just like people saying, “Keep my family’s mouth” – whatever they’re saying, I don’t care. They’re not going to stop me from doing what I’m doing. If they take a little edgy edge on it and they get a little touchy because I answered something a certain way, who cares? They’re not going to do nothing to me. I’m not going to do nothing to them. So, it ain’t no big deal.

LaVar Ball’s inability to say the phrase “Keep my name out of your mouth” or any variation of it is poetic.

Some advice to LeBron: Don’t respond. You’ll get nowhere with someone who can say so much publicly about something he admits “ain’t got nothing to do with me.” The elder Ball is too attention-hungry to back down, and engaging him further will only serve his agenda.

Russell Westbrook assists Andre Roberson transition dunk with sweet behind-the-back pass (video)

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Russell Westbrook produced a historic triple-double in the Thunder’s win over the 76ers last night, but merely counting his misses — zero — doesn’t do him justice.

Dunk-assisting behind-the-back passes are nice in any context. Considering how quickly Westbrook pushes the ball up the floor, the degree of difficulty here makes this one even more impressive.

Probably fake Cavaliers fan wears burnt LeBron James jersey (video)

AP Photo/Brett Davis
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Update: As pointed out by several, the Cavs didn’t introduce this jersey until after LeBron left. So, this was probably staged by the Nuggets. Still funny (and still searching for more evidence of Cleveland fans reconciling their about-face on LeBron).

 

Cavaliers fans went overboard when they burned LeBron James jerseys in the street when he left for the Heat in 2010.

Many of those same fans instantly forgot the terrible things they said about LeBron once he returned to Cleveland in 2014.

And then there’s this guy…

Ananth Pandian:

I’d like to believe this guy is publicly repenting for going too far in 2010.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: LeBron says Cavs lack toughness, or are they bored?

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The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season?
Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.

Yes, Cleveland had to go play at altitude in the middle of a long road trip. Still…

What is going on with the Cavaliers?

Opponents have outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 since the All-Star break, and the Cavs are playing terrible defense (second worst in the NBA since the break). Asked in Denver after the loss what is wrong with the Cavs, LeBron said the team lacked toughness, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.

To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.

That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.

It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.

The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?

2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.

Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.

The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.

3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.

As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.