NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: So freaking close.

The Thunder beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals in Oklahoma City by 11 points. A double-digit victory over he mighty triumverate. It was their fifth win in a row and they looked, as teams do when the win by double-digits, like the superior team in every way. Russell Westbrook couldn’t be stopped. Kevin Durant couldn’t be stopped. The Heat couldn’t keep up with their athleticism and offensive firepower.

They never won again that season.

The next three game were decided by 16 points total. The Heat won four straight, sending the Thunder home after another step forward but once again without the prize.

It was a season that showed considerable growth for the three stars, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Durant became an even more efficient scorer and a better defender, Westbrook increased his production and cut down on his mistakes, Harden grew into a playmaker. The team overall, though, was much te same as it was the year before. Great offensively, pretty good defensively, dominant most of the time and exciting to watch. Defense was the only question, and in the end, it was the only one that mattered, as the grind-it-out style of the Heat wore them down and eventually bested them.

The Thunder had to have walked away from 2012 neither convinced that they could or could not win the title.

Key Departures: Nazr Mohammed played 11 minutes per game last season. He’s gone, so there’s that. That’s pretty much it. And, you know, there’s no real concerns on the horizon. Oh, wait, James Harden.

Key Additions: Perry Jones III plummeted down the draft board, all the way to the Thunder. With no concerns about how he would affect team chemistry or the expecations that would be heaped on him, the Thunder leapt at him and snatched him up. Jones gives them a versatile stretch four who can likely play 3 in some big lineups and has the potential to be an absolute steal if thigs work out right.

They brought in Hasheem Thabeet to replace Mohammed, which is fine. He has to come in, not be horrible, contest or block shots, and rebound. He will do just enough of this to not stand out while clearly still being the weakest link on the team.

How about Daniel Orton? Can I interest you in Andy Rautins? Care for some DeAndre Liggins? No? No? Anybody?

Three One keys to the Thunder season:

1) KEEP CALM AND THUNDER UP: The Thunder don’t need to adapt or change or alter. They don’t need to play differently or mix it up or make things more complex. They just need to do what they did last year.

They just need to show up, run, score, and rock. They are very fittingly the AC/DC of the NBA.

They just need to play better and hope the Heat aren’t as good as they were last year. Bear in mind that in all these other previews I can give you in-depth reasons and tactical adjustments, lineup or chemistry tweaks, philosophical or pragmatic deviations necessary for improvement. I have none for the Thunder. They just need to play a little better. That’s all I’ve got.

What Thunder fans should fear: Chemistry is the thing. This team has accomplished remarkable things at a young age, all built on the strength of their bond with one another. Young players who came up together in a small market with few distrctions who liked each and liked playing with and for one another.

But business has come. Westbrook got his extension, but there are people, even those in Oklahoma City who think that eventually, he’s going to want the opportunity to show what he can be as the main act. James Harden’s contract is on the clock. If it gets done, the Thunder have to plan for their future. If it doesn’t, they have to figure out what to do with him.

This team has exemplified fun and youth for three years, and it’s been an incredible ride. But it’s extremely rare for a team like this to stay together as they get older and the money gets bigger. It’s like the circle of life, only with publicists.

How it likely works out: It’s going to come down to the Lakers or them for the West. There is zero doubt in anyone’s rational, objective mind about this. It’s just a matter of whether Perkins can contain Dwight enough, if Durant can lift his game to another level, if Westbrook can out-produce Nash since neither can defend the other.

There is no way to tell who’s going to come out of it. It’s going to be extremely fun, and there will be many who will want to just skip right to it.

Prediction: 63-19. They have no injury concerns. They have the league’s second best player and best offensive weapons. They have twolegitimate MVP candidates. Their shot-blocking defensive star has reliable mid-range jumper. They have depth, youth, experience, energy, athleticism, skill, and are very, very hungry. The Lakers may have arrived once more. The Thunder are already here.

Twitter is confused: Isaiah Thomas, Damian Lillard got All-Defensive team votes

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Isaiah Thomas is deservedly an All-NBA player and likely finished fifth in MVP balloting after a monster season. Damian Lillard is an All-Star level player who averaged 27 points a game for Portland last season.

Neither of them are good defenders. At all.

Both got one NBA All-Defensive second team vote.

There are no great defensive metrics, but the best snapshot one out there is ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which weighs a lot of factors into how a player and team defends. Thomas finished 86th out of 86 potential point guards, and second to last in the entire NBA (to answer your question, Doug McDermott was worse). Lillard finished 65th among point guards, in the range of Brandon Jennings and J.J. Barea. One stat certainly should not be a deciding factor for voters, but Twitter was rightfully confused how either of them got an All-Defense vote.

Isaiah Thomas chimed in, but he wasn’t defending himself.

On Tuesday the NBA will release a full breakdown of which media members voted and who they voted for on all the awards. (For the record, I had a vote, and I didn’t vote for either of them here). The NBA’s voting system can be a challenge because it’s pulldown menus with a lot of players, it could just be an error, but you can bet Twitter will be ready to ask.

Sixers young core already nicknamed “FEDS,” Durant thinks they should play a game first

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Hype is high in Philadelphia.

They have two NBA All-Rookie players on the roster already — Joel Embiid and Dario Saric — and next year they add to the roster the last two No. 1 picks, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. If I were a Sixers’ fan, I’d be Rocky climbing the stairs pumped — this team has real potential. So much so there’s already a nickname.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors were out taking batting practice at the A’s Stadium — that’s what you get to do when you’re NBA champs — and KD thought the Sixers may want to slow their roll and actually play a game together first.

Personally, I like the nickname. Now, will all four of them be on the Sixers in three years? Odds are at least one is gone, this is a cruel business. This was jumping the gun, but so what? Sixers fans deserve to be able to crow about something after the past couple of years.

Adam Silver’s view on age limit is evolving, Ben Simmons documentary helped change that

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The NBA age-limit discussion is like other, far more important debates going on in this country (such as health care) — there is no easy answer to be had. If there was a deal would already be done. What we know now is the current system doesn’t work.

“So my sense is it’s not working for anyone,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during the NBA Finals. “It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

However, Silver is no longer just on the “raise the age limit to 20” bandwagon, as he told Dan Patrick this morning on the Dan Patrick Show. His views on this are evolving.

The Showtime documentary on Ben Simmons had something to do with it — it highlighted what a sham the one year, really one semester, elite players spend in college has become. Simmons was open that he was only at LSU because he had to spend a year in college, and making the NCAA Tournament was not really a priority for him. (The past two No. 1 picks, Simmons and Markelle Fultz, both did not play in the tournament.) This year, 16 first-round picks were college freshmen.

The answer needs to be more holistic than just the age limit. It has to involve a stonger G-League, two-way contracts and other good developmental programs, and changes even down to the AAU level.

“To be honest, I’m not standing here today saying I have the perfect solution,” Silver said back in June, and reiterated to Patrick today. “I do know that as I talk — increasingly the veteran players in this league, as well, who feel that the young players are not coming in game ready in the way that they were when they were coming out of college. And we’re also seeing a dichotomy in terms of the international players. They’re coming in when they come in at 19, many of them have been professional for up to three years before they come into the league and have a very different experience than what we’re seeing from American players coming through our college programs.”

There is no easy answer. But at least the players union and NBA will start talking about it this summer. They need to find a system better than the one we’ve got.

Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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Later Monday night, one of Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, or Kawhi Leonard will be named NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (The smart money is on Green to win, but you can make a legitimate case for any of the three.)

Before that award is handed out, the NBA released its All-Defensive teams.

Not a lot of surprises here, especially on the first team. Green, Gobert, and Leonard are the top three vote getters for DPOY, so they were going to make this team, and since this team is positionally tied that meant two guards had to join them. (Each team has to have two guards, two forwards, and one center, and the voters have to vote that way.) Chris Paul and Patrick Beverley made that cut. The ballots were cast by 100 members of the NBA media (full disclosure I had a vote). A full list of who voted for whom will be made public on Tuesday by the NBA.

The biggest surprise: No LeBron James. Good defenders such as Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and Klay Thompson also didn’t make the cut.

Here’s who made the All-Defensive teams.

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE FIRST TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Forward Draymond Green, Golden State, 198
Center Rudy Gobert, Utah, 196
Forward Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio, 192
Guard Chris Paul, LA Clippers, 140
Guard Patrick Beverley, Houston, 110

2016-17 NBA ALL-DEFENSIVE SECOND TEAM

Position, Player, Team, Total Points (out of 200 possible)
Guard Tony Allen, Memphis, 80
Guard Danny Green, San Antonio, 68
Center Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 58
Forward Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 53
Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 35

Other players receiving votes, with point totals (First Team votes in parentheses): Avery Bradley, Boston, 46 (12); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 45 (16); John Wall, Washington, 38 (14); DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers, 35 (1); Paul Millsap, Atlanta, 35; Hassan Whiteside, Miami, 25 (1); Marcus Smart, Boston, 21 (5); Jimmy Butler, Chicago, 18; LeBron James, Cleveland, 12 (1); Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 11 (2); Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City, 10 (5); Paul George, Indiana, 7; Kevin Durant, Golden State, 6; Dwight Howard, Atlanta, 6 (1); Mike Conley, Memphis, 5 (1); Jae Crowder, Boston, 5; Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 5; Wesley Matthews, Dallas, 4 (2); Stephen Curry, Golden State, 3; Andre Iguodala, Golden State, 3 (1); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte, 3; Ricky Rubio, Minnesota, 3; P.J. Tucker, Toronto, 3; Trevor Ariza, Houston, 2; Nicolas Batum, Charlotte, 2; Marc Gasol, Memphis, 2; Eric Gordon, Houston, 2 (1); Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota, 2 (1); Steven Adams, Oklahoma City, 1; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio, 1; Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland, 1; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit, 1; George Hill, Utah, 1; Serge Ibaka, Toronto, 1; Damian Lillard, Portland, 1; Luc Mbah a Moute, LA Clippers, 1; Austin Rivers, LA Clippers, 1; Isaiah Thomas, Boston, 1; Cody Zeller, Charlotte, 1.

It should be noted that Atlanta’s Millsap had as many total points as Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo for the final slot, but because the Greek Freak got seven first-team votes as opposed to zero for Millsap, Antetokounmpo wins the tie breaker. Also, Boston’s Bradley and Golden State’s Thompson had more points than Antetokounmpo, but they could only be listed as guards.