Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant

What does Oklahoma City look like without James Harden?

21 Comments

Getting hit with the cold truth hurts. Getting hit with it 37 times? Ask a Thunder fan how that feels. Here’s the truth, and it has been evident long before last night’s coming out party: James Harden is a star in this league.

And no matter how you try to rationalize trading Harden while competing for a championship, Oklahoma City is worse off for it – at least for this season. That has less to do with skill than it does with fit, because Kevin Martin has long been one of the most underrated and efficient scorers in the league. Things will just look very different. Here’s how.

16-23 Feet: Getting Crowded

Don’t cry for the “lost art of the mid-range game.” It’s the worst shot in basketball, and teams that rely heavily on it typically don’t have much offensive success. To that point, the Charlotte Bobcats, offensive juggernaut they were, led the league in shot attempts from 16-23 feet last season.

Oklahoma City took the 7th least attempts from 16-23 feet last year, but all that’s about to change. Kevin Martin may be ultra-efficient, but he still likes to create space and fire off his jumper from this distance on the floor. Martin typically averages nearly 5 attempts per game from 16-23 feet. Compare that to James Harden, a guy who rarely pulled up for long-twos, as he shot exactly one per game last year.

With Westbrook and Ibaka firing from this distance more and more as the years get on, the Thunder offense could be a little streakier than it has been in the past. The Thunder did shoot the league’s best percentage from here last year (42.6%), but buyer beware. There was better stuff on the menu when Harden was creating options that no other player on the current roster is capable of replicating.

Nick Collison loses his dance partner

Part of the reason Harden was able to have so much success in the pick-and-roll was because of the chemistry he enjoyed with Nick Collison. Apart from being a great screener, Collison knew exactly when to slip, or re-set, or simply leave Harden to his own devices. It would be a shock if Martin enjoyed the same success with Collison, as he looks almost solely to free himself, rarely feeding the roll man with a clever bounce pass.

And that hurts. Like an offensive lineman in football that gets sick of pass protection and just wants to run the ball a few times, big men in basketball setting screens want to roll hard to the rim and get rewarded with the ball every now and then. Collison has routinely been one of the league leaders in plus/minus, but without being so closely attached to Harden, his effectiveness should dwindle a bit.

Pin-down screens for all

Ultimately, it’s Scott Brooks who faces the biggest task of replacing Harden with Martin, simply because Harden was such a good “freelance” player. Even though Martin is actually a very good isolation scorer, he’s by no means a primary ballhandler. While Harden could get you in your stuff and out of it when it got bad, Martin can only finish the equation.

What’s that mean? More Eric Maynor handling the ball with the second unit, and a whole handful of the “Kevin Durant package” plays, which are basically pin-down screens, designed for Martin. Although he’s still far from a creative offensive mind, Brooks has gotten better at getting Durant the ball closer to the basket. Doing the same with Martin is a good idea, as he’s led the NBA three of the last four years in free throw attempts per 36 minutes.

Stagnant offense

This should be the big fear for the Thunder – the offense becoming too stagnant. Oklahoma City sometimes has a tendency to take turns, which can really leave them without any flow. Usually, Westbrook or Durant are so good and so unstoppable that it doesn’t matter, and that will be the case again this year. But once playoff time rolls around, the Thunder will miss the ability of Harden to break down the defense as a primary ballhandler.

Softer defense

Harden doesn’t measure out as a great defender, but the raw goods were there. Martin, meanwhile, doesn’t offer much resistance at all, as he’s not laterally quick or nearly strong enough to deny anyone spots on the floor. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, but at least Harden had the physical ability to hang with a Dwyane Wade type – Martin just doesn’t.

A little more frail

Okay, this is the actual biggest fear – Kevin Martin missing significant time. Martin missed 26 games last year, 36 three years ago, 31 the year before that, and 21 the year before that. Harden, meanwhile, has only missed 10 games over his first three seasons.

Although stylistically they’ll go through changes, it’s important to remember that Oklahoma City was bold enough to draft Harden where they did in the first place. If they are so willing to hit the reset button over a few million dollars every year, it seems almost likely that there’s something underneath the surface that we can’t quite see. Until that reason surfaces, however, take the Thunder for what they are — a less varied, less durable, less likely championship contender.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Associated Press
Leave a comment

And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.

Coach Steve Kerr: Warriors on brink but ready to rally

2 Comments

OAKLAND, Calif. — Steve Kerr gave his Golden State players a much-needed mental day off with time to rest their weary bodies, and he got back to work trying to figure out how to save the season against a powerful Thunder team that shows no signs of slowing down.

Back to the basics, back to doing the little things that got the Warriors this far.

After a record 73 wins in the regular season, the Warriors are on the brink as they go into Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night in Oakland trailing the Thunder 3-1 after a second straight lopsided loss in Oklahoma City.

No denying it’s a daunting task for the defending champs – especially given that MVP Stephen Curry is a far cry from being completely healthy.

“Well, it’s a sense of reality staring us in the face. We’re down 3-1,” Kerr said Wednesday. “Momentum can shift quickly in the playoffs. We’ve seen that the last couple years. Let’s take care of business at home, get some momentum back and we’ve got a chance.”

All season long, the Warriors have taken the best efforts from every opponent. The just haven’t shown the vulnerabilities that appeared the past two games in Oklahoma City, where Golden State lost back-to-back games for the first time during its record-setting season.

The flight home was hardly fun following Tuesday’s 118-94 defeat.

“It was not festive. It was quiet,” Kerr said.

The Warriors shot 41 percent and committed 21 turnovers that led to 18 Thunder points. Curry was 6 for 20 and missed eight of his 10 3-point attempts to score 19 points, sparking further talk that he’s far from full strength. The unanimous MVP has dealt with ankle, knee and elbow injuries this postseason alone.

Kerr isn’t about to put a percentage on his superstar’s health.

“I don’t do that. If he were struggling with anything, I would know,” Kerr said. “Nobody has said anything about Steph being 70 percent to me. Our training staff, relatives, friends, sources with knowledge of our team’s thinking, nobody has told me he’s 70 percent.”

Golden State will likely need a big night from Curry to get back in this.

Only nine teams in NBA history have rallied from being down 3-1 to win a postseason series, yet Kerr was quick to note, “I’m guessing most of them weren’t the defending champs.”

With the season on the line, first-year Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan expects the Warriors to bring their best while back in front of their home fans.

“Again, we have great respect for Golden State. We know how good of a team they are. You’ve got to get to a place after each game – what happened in the game, what do we need to get better, what do we do well, what are some changes or adjustments we need to make – and then you’ve got to move into the next one,” Donovan said.

“I just don’t believe that Game 5 is a continuation from Game 4. This is its own separate game and we’re going to have to go now on the road to play in a very difficult environment against a great team.”

The Thunder know full well how close they are but also that nothing will be given to them easily. They last reached the NBA Finals in 2012, losing in five games to the Miami Heat.

Oklahoma City stole Game 1 on the Warriors’ raucous home floor in Oracle Arena, where Golden State has lost just three times all season.

“Every game you have a sense of urgency, it’s the playoffs and you know what everybody’s playing for. We’ve just got to come out there and be who we are,” Kevin Durant said. “We can’t put too much pressure on ourselves. We have to go out, play the game, and play with passion and energy. And we know the whole crowd’s going to be against us and we have to stick together even more.”

The Thunder are playing with all the poise and passion on both ends, while the Warriors haven’t been able to hang around the past two games, in part because of uncharacteristic miscues.

“They’ve had a lot of frustration over the years. They’re healthy. They’re whole. They are determined, and they want what we have,” Kerr said. “We have a banner hanging up in here and we take great pride in that. It’s a hard thing to accomplish, and they’ve been close, but they haven’t done it, and they’re coming after us. They’re really getting after it and playing well and competing. We’ve got to stand up to that.”

Report: Bismack Biyombo could command $17 million per year in free agency

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates late in the second half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
5 Comments

Last summer, Bismack Biyombo signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Raptors with a player option for the second year, following four unremarkable seasons in Charlotte. After his performance in the playoffs, it’s a no-brainer that he’ll opt out, and he’s in line for a huge payday. Perhaps bigger than most people expected, even with the rising salary cap.

An unnamed GM told the Sporting News‘ Sean Deveney that Biyombo’s price tag this summer could be $17 million per year:

“For someone like (Biyombo), I think when you look at a guy like Tyson Chandler and what he got from Phoenix last summer (four years, $52 million), that’s where you start for a contract,” one Eastern Conference GM told Sporting News. “But you factor in the cap spike and it’s probably going to be high, I’d say, $16-17 million. It’ll be a heck of a $17 million-per-year gamble.”

Honestly, $17 million a year seems low given what next year’s market is shaping up to be. He’s arguably the third-best center available, after Al Horford (unlikely to leave Atlanta) and Hassan Whiteside (a lock for a max deal somewhere). With the amount of cap space teams around the league will have, and the top-heaviness of the free-agent class (there isn’t much beyond Horford, Kevin Durant and Mike Conley), it’s a good bet that somebody will overpay for Biyombo, especially after a playoff run that’s seen him average 20.5 rebounds per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference. Whether he’s worth that money is a different discussion, but he’ll get it from somebody.

Steve Kerr on Stephen Curry: “it’s not an injury”

5 Comments

In the age of social media and spin, the idea of a nuanced answer — where there is some truth to a statement, but it is not the only reason for something — gets drowned out.

For example, let’s take the case of Stephen Curry‘s below-par performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder (he was 6-of-20 shooting with six turnovers in Game 4 and is 5-of-21 from three in the last two games). A report came out Wednesday morning saying Curry was only 70 percent following his knee surgery, which first led to a lot of silly “excuses” comments on Twitter. This led to Steve Kerr denying the injury, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s a radical idea: Curry’s struggles are a combination of things.

Yes, the improved, athletic, and lengthy Thunder defense is giving Curry problems. They are meeting him out high, often doubling off the pick-and-roll, and when that pick is set by Draymond Green Kevin Durant and his length is doing a great job of blowing that play up. Also, it is clear the physical exertion of guarding Russell Westbrook is wearing Curry down.

But also, he has lacked the explosiveness we saw lift him to a second consecutive MVP during the season. He’s had great quarters — the fourth and OT in Game 4 vs. Portland, and the second quarter of Game 2 vs. OKC — but he has not been the consistent force we are used to seeing.

Welcome to the playoffs, where if someone is a little bit off that gets exploited by the other team.

That is what is going on, the rest is just spin.