ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: The Thunder finished the regular season with a record of 60-22, which was good for the number one playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Thanks to the unfortunate knee injury that occurred in Game 2 of the team’s first round playoff series against the Rockets, however, OKC quite literally limped to the finish line, and was overmatched by a Memphis Grizzlies team in the second round that took care of them easily in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: The play that was most impactful was, of course, Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs. But let’s keep it positive here, and with too many ridiculous Kevin Durant highlights to choose from, let’s go with this explosive dunk from Westbrook on the break that he threw down over Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

Key player changes: OKC didn’t make any additions that would lead you to believe the roster this year is better than it was a season ago, and lost it’s only reliable scorer from the bench unit in free agency.

  • IN: Rookies Steven Adams (drafted with the 10th overall pick) and Andre Roberson (drafted with the 26th overall pick by Minnesota, then dealt to OKC on draft night) are the only new faces with guaranteed contracts in place for the coming season.
  • OUT: Kevin Martin was allowed to leave in free agency, and although he got more from the Timberwolves than he would have been worth to the Thunder (especially when retaining him would’ve meant entering luxury tax territory), his loss will be noticed, especially in the early part of the season. Ronnie Brewer was a midseason acquisition, but he didn’t have much impact and ended up signing with the Rockets this summer.

Keys to the Thunder’s season:

1) The health of Russell Westbrook: We know Westbrook is going to miss at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season following an additional knee surgery that took place just recently. What we don’t know is how long it’ll be before he returns to form as one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the game today.

The timeline of Westbrook’s ascent back to the player he once was is going to make all the difference in how the Thunder’s regular season plays out. The team is obviously looking at playing deep into the postseason, after finishing with 60 wins last year and making it to the Finals in the season before that. But in the midst of a crowded Western Conference stacked with at least six powerful teams, finishing lower in the standings will make the desired playoff results that much more difficult to achieve.

2) The development of the bench: OKC traded away James Harden before the beginning of last season, and while history is not going to look kindly on the deal from the Thunder’s perspective, at least they got a semi-serviceable scorer in Kevin Martin in return who could fill that role off the bench. With Martin now gone in free agency (and with no one added to replace him), the Thunder are going to need to get production from the reserve unit somewhere if they’re going to be able to compete with the league’s elite teams.

The hope is that Reggie Jackson, who saw heavy minutes during the playoffs and performed better than expected, can continue to develop into a reliable contributor that he’s already shown signs of proving to be. But it would be nice if Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins or one of the freshly-drafted rookies could contribute as well, and there’s just no guarantee that they’ll come along as quickly as the Thunder need them to in order to remove some of the burden from the starters’ shoulders.

3) Kevin Durant, MVP? This could be the year that Kevin Durant unseats LeBron James as league MVP, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost on the list could be voter fatigue — we all know that James is considered to be the game’s best player, but if the Heat coast a little during the regular season and Durant is forced to put up ridiculous numbers to keep his team in the hunt while Westbrook is out, it would be easy to see him quickly becoming the favorite to take home the award if those making the call are looking to give it to someone besides James.

Durant is capable of dominating offensively, and will be expected to do so with his All-Star teammate sidelined. He could take on an even bigger role as the season progresses depending on Westbrook’s recovery and whether or not he gets much help from his teammates. If he puts up MVP-caliber numbers, there’s no reason the Thunder can’t be right where they need to be by the time the season concludes, despite all of the apparent challenges.

Why you should watch the Thunder: Durant and Westbrook are arguably two of the league’s top-five players. Beyond that, the intrigue with this Thunder team runs deep. Can Durant carry them to a high place in the regular season standings, or will the team collapse under heavy expectations, and due to Westbrook’s injury and the lack of a capable bench? There’s drama here, and that’s exciting.

Prediction: 53-29, good for a top-five finish in the West. Durant will need to come through with that MVP season for the Thunder to be in the championship conversation, especially in a deeper-than-usual Western Conference. While he’s certainly capable of that, the questions surrounding Westbrook and the reserve unit are too plentiful for the team to warrant anything more than a forecast of a similar outcome as it experienced a season ago — a second round playoff loss.

Report: Warriors re-signing JaVale McGee to one-year contract

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The Warriors helped rehabilitate JaVale McGee‘s career to the point he wanted more – more money, a starting spot.

But old reputations die hard, and it’s a tough market for free-agent centers.

So, McGee is returning to Golden State.

ESPN:

The Golden State Warriors are re-signing center JaVale McGee to a one-year contract, source told ESPN’s Chris Haynes.

McGee could receive between the minimum ($2,116,955) and Non-Bird Exception ($2,540,346). He’ll cost Golden State between $5,968,023 and $10,511,120.* Here’s guessing he gets the minimum.

*Factoring in the NBA’s reimbursement for one-year minimum contracts and the luxury tax, also assuming the Warriors keep the same roster when the tax is assessed at the end of the regular season

Golden State played to McGee’s strengths by simplifying the game for him. He chased lobs, blocks and rebounds and was asked to do little else. He still made the occasional gaffe, and questions about his basketball intelligence remain, but McGee progressed in his never-ending battle to stifle the laughter.

Not every team could protect McGee like that, so he’s more valuable to the Warriors than others. He’ll take another crack at free agency next summer, but at 30, he might not find eager suitors then, either.

In Golden State, he’ll again join a center rotation that includes Zaza Pachulia and David West and maybe Damian Jones and Jordan Bell. With stars at every other position, the Warriors have taken an equalitarian approach at center.

McGee gives the Warriors 15 players clearly on standard contracts, the regular-season limit. Chris Boucher is on a two-way contract, and Antonius Cleveland might be, too. Even if he’s on a standard contract, Cleveland is unlikely to stick past the preseason. It seems we know the roster Golden State will take into the regular season.

Then again, McGee surprisingly made the regular-season roster on an unguaranteed deal last year. Maybe he’ll have to fend off challengers this year.

Warriors lock up Cleveland

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The Warriors smoked the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Now, the Warriors are taking control of Cleveland.

Antonius Cleveland.

NBC Sports Bay Area:

Golden State agreed to terms on a training camp invite with Antonius Cleveland, NBC Sports Bay Area has learned.

Cleveland went undrafted out of Southeast Missouri State, where the 6-foot-6 guard was either a late bloomer or just a 23-year-old who outgrew his competition. He’s likely ticked for the Warriors’ minor-league affiliate, either as an affiliate player waived in the preseason or maybe even on a two-way contract.

Did the Warriors sign Cleveland for the jokes? Probably not. He’s a viable developmental prospect.

But they also signed JaVale McGee in Nick Young the last couple years. I can’t completely rule it out.

Report: Lakers signing Thomas Bryant to two-year contract with team option

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The Lakers have negotiated just a few contracts this summer – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyler Ennis and now Thomas Bryant.

The deals all have something in common: no guarantees beyond 2018, when the Lakers are expected to pursue free agents like Paul George and LeBron James.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Lakers still had the room exception, so they could’ve offered more than the minimum. They might have had to get Bryant to bypass the required tender, a one-year contract – surely guaranteed at the minimum – teams must extend to maintain draft rights to a second-round pick.

Bryant entered the draft a year too late. After looking like first rounder last year, he returned to Indiana and saw his stock slip. He’d have reason to bargain for more compensation.

Brook Lopez is clearly the Lakers’ top center, but there are minutes available behind him. Bryant will join Ivica Zubac in the effort to prove they play hard enough and have enough skill to overcome their lack of athleticism.

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s reported reaction to Knicks’ $71 million offer: ‘Man, that’s crazy’

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Knicks acting (now long-term) front-office leader Steve Mills signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet shocked some within the Knicks.

It also apparently shocked someone who wasn’t (yet) with New York – Hardaway himself.

Pablo Torre on ESPN:

I was talking to somebody who would know about the Tim Hardaway Jr. scenario. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s first words after signing that contract: “Man, that’s crazy.”

In the likely event Hardaway doesn’t live up to this massive contract, he’ll get blamed – and the scorn will be hotter in New York.* That’s not fair, as Hardaway was just taking the money offered to him. He wasn’t getting anywhere near that much anywhere else. But it is reality.

*It’s a lesson Kyrie Irving, who could land anywhere, could stand to remember as he reportedly hopes for the Knicks to trade for him.

As hilarious as Hardaway’s response was, it doesn’t top Tyler Johnson for my favorite reaction to a loaded offer sheet.